How should Christians approach Ash Wednesday?
Since the 4th century AD, Christians—particularly in the Roman Catholic, as well as other “high church,” traditions—have celebrated Ash Wednesday and the Lenten season as a part of the church calendar. The church calendar, in general, is designed so that different aspects of the life of Christ are celebrated at different times of the year: Advent (four Sundays leading up to Christmas) anticipates the birth of Christ; Epiphany (January 6) commemorates the revelation of Christ’s glory to the world; and Easter, obviously, celebrates the resurrection of Christ, as just a few examples. Ash Wednesday takes place 46 days before Easter, and inaugurates the Lenten season, which is centered on repentance and fasting in anticipation of Good Friday and the death of Christ. Christians in the 4th century at the Council of Nicea added this season to the calendar as 40 days of fasting, along with six days of feasting on the Sundays leading up to Easter Sunday.
Christians with a Catholic or other liturgical background may have grown up celebrating Mass on Ash Wednesday and received the ceremonial ashes placed upon their forehead in the sign of the cross. Popularly, many Christians “give something up” for Lent by fasting from a particular food, hobby, or other practice (e.g., coffee, sweets, TV, etc.) as a part of preparing for the Easter celebration.
For us, as evangelical Protestants, and Baptists in particular, the practice of celebrating Ash Wednesday and Lent is much less common. So how should Christians engage with this church holiday, if at all?
What is Ash Wednesday all about?
As stated briefly above, Ash Wednesday is the beginning of Lent and marks the start of the fasting done during that period. In some places, Ash Wednesday is preceded by Mardi Gras (French for “Fat Tuesday”), which is, traditionally, a final opportunity for feasting (“fat eating”) prior to the 40 days of fasting in Lent. Of course, if you’ve seen any photos or videos of Mardi Gras celebrations in New Orleans or Carnival in Brazil, you know that “fat eating” is perhaps the tamest of vices celebrated on this day.
By contrast, Ash Wednesday is centered on self-reflection, repentance, and an acknowledgment of one’s own mortality. Practices during an Ash Wednesday service will vary from tradition to tradition. Catholics participate in Mass (the Lord’s Supper) during the service, and others observe the holiday by staying home from work, like a mid-week Sabbath.
Central to the name and message of Ash Wednesday is the wearing of ashes on one’s forehead. At some point in the service, the priest or minister will take the ashes made by burning the leaves from the palm branches used for Palm Sunday the previous year, mixed with holy water (in Catholic traditions) and place them on the forehead of the congregant in the shape of a cross. Traditionally, as this is done, the minister or priest recites the words, “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.” That saying is significant, not only as a reminder of man’s mortality, but also because it comes from Genesis 3:19, as a part of the curse from God as a result of man’s sin. It is a reminder of the deathly consequences of sin as the churchgoer prepares to enter the Lenten season of self-examination and repentance. Ashes may be washed off after the service, but oftentimes are worn throughout the rest of the day.
Chuck Colson (not that Chuck Colson—though there could be a relation, I’m not sure), a current PCA minister and former Anglican rector, writes of the effect of the ceremony with the ashes in this article on the Gospel Coalition website in 2013:
“The most difficult moment I face each year, as an Anglican pastor, is to apply the ashes, in the sign of a cross, to the foreheads of my wife and children on Ash Wednesday. It is an intimate and haunting moment. Echoing the words of Genesis 3:19, I say, ‘Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.’ It is jarring. Every year, I cry.
“Yet the ashes are applied in the shape of Jesus' cross—the only means for escaping the dust of death. When God raised Jesus, he raided death, destroying its power. Jesus' resurrection marks the death of death and welcomes us into a living hope (1 Pt. 1:3). This is our consolation and joy in the midst of our mortality.”
What about Lent?
Lent is explained in The Worship Sourcebook (liturgy from the Reformed tradition) as follows: “Lent is a season of preparation and repentance during which we anticipate Good Friday and Easter. Just as we carefully prepare for big events in our personal lives, such as a wedding or commencement, Lent invites us to make our hearts ready for remembering Jesus’ passion and celebrating Jesus’ resurrection.” In some traditions, Christians also used Lent as a preparation and instruction season for those who desired to be baptized.
The most common tradition associated with Lent, however, is fasting. In parallel to Jesus’ fasting for 40 days in the wilderness, Christians undergo a fast of their own for the 40 days of Lent (not counting the six Sunday “feast” days). The most popular observance of this is seen in the prohibition of Catholics in eating meat on Ash Wednesday and all the Fridays of the Lenten season, resulting in many a Catholic church Friday fish fry in the six weeks leading up to Easter. There have been many possible explanations as to why the Catholic church prohibited meat on these days in favor of fish, some rather fantastical. Whatever the reason, this abstinence from meat is a part of the Lenten fast.
Other forms of fasting involve “giving something up” for Lent. As a way of practicing a partial fast, many Catholics and Christians of other traditions make a practice of fasting from a particular food, drink or habit in observance of Lent. It’s not uncommon to hear of someone even giving up a particular sin during Lent, like lying, though that is somewhat problematic (if you give up sinning for only 40 days, you’ve kind of missed the point of focusing on repentance). At its core, the purpose of fasting is to use the discomfort in going without a normal convenience or treat as a prompt to turn our minds towards prayer and repentance.
What does the Bible say about Ash Wednesday and Lent?
Like many contemporary holidays, neither Ash Wednesday nor Lent appears in the Bible. There are, however, several biblical themes represented in both. The ashes placed on the forehead, as previously noted, are usually accompanied by the words of Genesis 3:19, “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.” The ashes, in this context, remind us of our mortality and of the deathly consequences of sin (cf. Gen. 18:27). Further, ashes are often associated with mourning and repentance—and, occasionally, fasting—throughout the Bible (e.g., Esth. 4:1, 3; Job 42:6; Jer. 6:26; Dan. 9:3; Jonah 3:6; Matt. 11:21).
Fasting, likewise, certainly has biblical roots. The 40 days of the Lenten fast, as mentioned above, are patterned off Jesus’ 40-day fast in the wilderness temptation (Matt. 4:1–2). Jesus taught his followers about the importance of fasting (see more below) and certainly endorsed it as a healthy practice for Christians. The partial fast most observe for Lent (“giving something up”) is more foreign to the biblical notion of fasting, but not completely so.
Beyond these external factors, the notions of meditating on the death of Christ, mourning for sin and repenting of it, are absolutely biblical and essential for the Christian. Many of the other elements associated with Ash Wednesday and Lent—like eating fish on Fridays—however, are more the product of human traditions than biblical instruction.
Are there dangers in observing Ash Wednesday or Lent?
Like any human tradition, there are potential dangers in observing Ash Wednesday and Lent, but they need not necessarily be thought of as problematic. One of the most common criticisms of Ash Wednesday and Lent have to do with the public nature of the fast. People who attend an Ash Wednesday ceremony typically wear the ashes on their head throughout the rest of the day, and it’s not uncommon for people to announce (in one form of another) what they are “giving up” for Lent. Contrast that with what Jesus says about fasting in Matthew 6:16–18, “And when you fast, do not look gloomy like the hypocrites, for they disfigure their faces that their fasting may be seen by others. Truly, I say to you, they have received their reward. But when you fast, anoint your head and wash your face, that your fasting may not be seen by others but by your Father who is in secret. And your Father who sees in secret will reward you.”
Likewise, Isaiah writes, “Is such the fast that I choose, a day for a person to humble himself? Is it to bow down his head like a reed, and to spread sackcloth and ashes under him? Will you call this a fast, and a day acceptable to the Lord? Is not this the fast that I choose: to loose the bonds of wickedness, to undo the straps of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free, and to break every yoke? Is it not to share your bread with the hungry and bring the homeless poor into your house; when you see the naked, to cover him, and not to hide yourself from your own flesh?” (Isa. 58:5–7, emphasis added).
Both Isaiah and Jesus emphasize that the external signs of repentance are secondary to the internal pursuit of righteousness and humility. Jesus says, effectively, “If your primary goal of fasting is to be well thought of by others, then that’s all the reward you will get!” As David said in Psalm 51:16–17, “For you will not delight in sacrifice, or I would give it; you will not be pleased with a burnt offering. The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit; a broken and contrite heart, O God, you will not despise.”
Of course, none of this means that wearing the ashes on your head or mentioning your Lenten fast to others is sinful, in and of itself. Both Jesus’ and Isaiah’s point is that repentance is a matter of the heart, not external observances. One could choose to wear the ashes throughout the day as an ongoing reminder of the inward spiritual reality it represents, much the same way that one may choose to wear a cross displayed on a necklace. Similarly, one might mention their Lenten fast as a casual conversation piece or to ask to be held accountable to their decision. We should, as in all things, be slow to judge the intentions of another’s heart. As Paul instructs in Romans 14, there are some issues that are a matter of conscience. In these matters, we are called to bear with those who might feel differently from us. As Paul writes, “ Who are you to pass judgment on the servant of another? It is before his own master that he stands or falls. ... Let us pursue what makes for peace and for mutual upbuilding” (Rom. 14:4, 19).
Others may object to the idea of Lent because they feel it is a reality to be celebrated all year long. Why focus on repentance for just 40 days? Aren’t we supposed to repent all year long? And shouldn’t we consistently be reminded of the death of Christ and his suffering for us? This criticism is valid, insofar as it goes, but practicing a Lenten fast doesn’t necessarily mean we only focus on repenting for these 40 days. We celebrate the incarnation of Christ during the Christmas season and his resurrection at Easter, but that certainly isn’t the only time we think of or celebrate those things in our hearts. Once again, what is of paramount importance is the attitude of our hearts, whether we choose to participate in these events or to abstain.
Should Christians participate in the Lenten season?
That really depends upon your conscience and your attitude toward these observances. I would never counsel someone that they must participate in Ash Wednesday or Lent, but I would also probably not tell someone that they must definitely not participate, either. Many celebrate Christmas in such a way that is consumed by commercialism and has little to do with celebrating the wonder of the Incarnation. That is not a reason for others not to celebrate, however. It is simply a reminder that, as with many things, there are right and wrong ways (or better and worse ways) to celebrate central aspects of the Christian faith. So it is, too, with Lent.
At Throne of Grace, we do not hold an Ash Wednesday service or actively encourage others to hold a Lenten fast, but this does not mean that these practices are completely without value. If a Christian decides to give something up for Lent or hold some kind of fast during these 40 days out of a desire to practice self control and to be devoted to repentance and prayer as he awaits the celebrations of Good Friday and Easter Sunday, that is a valuable and respectable practice to make. If, however, another decides not to participate and to anticipate and meditate on personal repentance and the death of Christ in a different way or at a different time, that practice is equally valuable and respectable.
Regardless of our observance or non-observance of these traditions, it is certainly good and right for us to reflect upon the spiritual realities that Lent represents. Our world, like us, is broken and fallen, and subject to decay; but, the Son of God has entered into that world that he might take that brokenness upon himself and make all things new, as he rises in victory on that first Easter Sunday.