As worshippers entered the dim sanctuary, they could tell that this wasn't the usual Wednesday night prayer meeting in the First Baptist Church of Gretna, Va.
First, there was quiet music, candlelight and a meditative atmosphere. After awhile, worship leaders began reading verses from the Psalms, such as: "Have mercy upon me, O God. Wash me thoroughly from mine iniquity, and cleanse me from my sin. For I acknowledge my transgressions and my sin is ever before me." Then everyone sang "Amazing grace! How sweet the sound, that saved a wretch like me!"
Finally, participants were invited to walk the aisle and have ashes applied to their foreheads in the shape of a cross. Yes, First Baptist in Gretna held an Ash Wednesday service last year and it will do so once again next week, opening the Lenten season that precedes Easter.
"To tell you the truth, we didn't do the sign of the cross on the forehead part at first," said the Rev. M. Glenn Graves, describing the rites that began three years ago in his church. "That kind of thing tends to freak Baptists out, you know? So we just let them stick their own hands down in the urn the first time and get ashes all over themselves."
For one thing, the ashes were really thick and hard to handle that first year. Christians have long added to the symbolism of these rites by using ashes created by burning palm branches saved from Palm Sunday the previous year. But there's the rub. Palm Sunday rites are almost as rare in Baptist circles as Ash Wednesday services. Since Graves didn't have any old palm leaves around his church, he burned a dried-out Christmas tree instead. Since then, he has found that friendly florists will hand over a few palm branches.
"We could do Palm Sunday, but that would open up Holy Week and there you go," he said, laughing. "Then my people would really accuse me of being a Baptist-Episcopalian-Roman Catholic. That's the thing about traditions like that. They all seem to be connected and once you use one of them it's hard to know where to stop adding things to the calendar."
Graves is convinced many people in Protestant pews would welcome a chance to find symbolic ways to deal with sticky issues such as sin, repentance, forgiveness and their own mortality - even if the "new" rites are really centuries old. After asking a few tough questions, his flock has accepted Ash Wednesday as a chance to face "the dark side of their souls," he said.
"For those of us who are new at this, it is awkward, much like our confessed sins," he wrote, in an article in Baptists Today, a national newspaper for those in the "moderate" wing of Baptist life. "However, the shared, solemn occasion has left a mark on us like the dark ashes we carry on our foreheads."
First Baptist in Gretna - located about 38 miles south of Lynchburg - hasn't based its rites directly on a Catholic liturgy or the Episcopal Book of Common Prayer. Instead, Graves said he adopted a very Baptist approach to tiptoeing into ancient traditions. He went to a mainline Protestant bookstore and bought a copy of "The New Handbook of the Christian Year." Then his church started experimenting.
Graves suggested that churches that want to try Ash Wednesday services should start with their own frameworks of scriptures and familiar music about sin and repentance - such as "Amazing Grace." For some people, this more formal approach to worship may seem like "going through the motions," he said. But for many others, it will provide a chance to form ties to believers in the past.
"Sometimes you just have to pull some stuff from here and some stuff from there and then give it a shot," he said. "Because I'm a Baptist, I'm free to pick and choose. I'm free to choose the parts of a liturgy that I'm comfortable with and to avoid the parts that I know will make my people uncomfortable. You have to find out what works for your people."