Today the Catholics and Anglicans observe Ash Wednesday as the start of the Lenten season in the church. Baptists, and I would guess most other Reformed Protestants, do not have special liturgies to mark the day — or ashes to mark the foreheads of the faithful.

Ashes to ashes; we all return to dust. Well known. And we should all welcome opportunities to deepen our Christian faith. To a point. The point of Ash Wednesday is to enter a period of (choose your route) a) reflection and reconciliation, b) penance for your sins, c) a 40-day journey in the desert in anticipation of the Passion and Resurrection of Easter morn. Or all of the above.

So, why no ashes? For me, it’s in Scripture: Matthew, Chapter 6:

16 When you fast, do not look somber as the hypocrites do, for they disfigure their faces to show men they are fasting. I tell you the truth, they have received their reward in full. 17 But when you fast, put oil on your head and wash your face, 18 so that it will not be obvious to men that you are fasting, but only to your Father, who is unseen; and your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you.

Does this mean I think that those who do wear an outward sign of fasting for Lent (ashes) are hypocrites? No. But it shows that their churches hold tradition to be at least the equal to Scripture. Or at least New Testament Scripture.

To be certain, sackcloth and ashes are called for in the Hebrew Scriptures. For example, Daniel 9:3:

So I turned to the Lord God and pleaded with him in prayer and petition, in fasting, and in sackcloth and ashes.

But as part of our new Covenant, Jesus tells us that the old tradition of sackcloth and ashes to demonstrate penance is not needed.

What is most curious is that the Roman Catholic and Anglican liturgies for today include the very same passages from Matthew 6:16-18. Curious, and, seemingly self-contradictory. In any event, Ash Wednesday should be as any other day: waiting upon the Lord; being prepared for His return at any moment. From Mark 13:

32″No one knows about that day or hour, not even the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father. 33 Be on guard! Be alert! You do not know when that time will come. It’s like a man going away: He leaves his house and puts his servants in charge, each with his assigned task, and tells the one at the door to keep watch. 35 “Therefore keep watch because you do not know when the owner of the house will come back–whether in the evening, or at midnight, or when the rooster crows, or at dawn. 36If he comes suddenly, do not let him find you sleeping. 37What I say to you, I say to everyone: ‘Watch!’”


[note: this is a post of mine from last Ash Wednesday; it still speaks my mind. Perhaps my penance is to repeat posts?]

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  1. Mark Hunsaker · · Reply

    John Luke,

    Thank you for sharing this post. As a practicing Lutheran, I can share with you that our church also observes a special service on Ash Wednesday.

    Our custom is to take the Christmas Tree that we have in our church and we burn it. We use the ashes from this tree to remind us of Christ’s reason for being born. He was born to set his face like flint toward Jerusalem, to endure the punishment, to endure the cross.

    Our Pastor puts the ashes on our forheads as the mark of the lamb, not to show off our peity, but rather to then leave the service reminded of what our Lord did for us. We typically discuss the ancient traditions of “ashes to ashes” and all of that, but encourage our community to be Christ centered.

    You know, I’m convinced that any tradition or practice can be powerful if it is Christ centered. The problem, which you rightly point out, is when it becomes man centered and then it becomes that nasty terrible thing which I call “religion.”

  2. John Luke
    Thoughtful post. I spend my time every beginning of lent traveling some 20+ hours back to my home from New Orleans. I have spent Fat Tuesday for the last 20 years reminding the Revelers to Repent for Lent.

    God is not looking for people who have a religious ceremony to honor Him. He simply is looking for people who will honor Him with their hearts and not their lips or traditions only.

    Nice Page

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