Today brings us Ash Wednesday — which is 40 days prior to Easter (not counting Sundays). It’s generally simply a Roman Catholic observance, and few other groups treat it as a holy day. I wonder how many RCC adherents understand what they are doing on such “holy days” and if they realize such behaviors create no saving merit before God. The Bible clearly points explains salvation comes to men by grace alone through faith alone — not by works, lest any should boast (see Eph. 2:8-9).
While I do NOT advocate any outward observance of Ash Wednesday, I do wonder what there is to learn from the day.
First some further explanation…. On Ash Wednesday, many folks go to a special service and receive the mark of the cross on their forehead, made with ashes. The ashes come from the burning of the Palm Sunday palms leaves. The mark is left there for the day.
Why do this? Most simply say “it’s the beginning of Lent” — the 40 days before Easter. Others know that (since the middle ages) the service and the ashes are about confession and repentance for sins. Typically, penitential psalms are read (ie, Psalm 51), and individuals are called to fast during the day, as they confess their sins before God.
Why use ashes? In the Bible, when one was truly repentant before God, they would dress in sackcloth and toss ashes on their head as symbols of spiritual sorrow, grief and repentance — ever since Job repented “in dust and ashes” (42:6), and as described in the preaching of Jesus (Matt. 11:21). Usually, such Scriptures are cited as the ashes are applied: “Remember, O man, that you are dust, and to dust you shall return” or “Repent, and believe the Gospel.” So ashes should remind men of their mortality (you are going to die), and the consequences of their sin.
What might we learn here?
First, know that these Ash Wednesday rituals are NOT prescribed for us in the Bible, and were not practiced in the early church. They are (by and large) the rituals of religious folk, who are trying to earn their way to heaven. Like most rituals, they can (and have) become traditions without much inward meaning, and usually just fuel superstition (the use of “special ashes”). I recommend you steer clear of such things! [If you see someone with ashes on their head, I hope you engage them in conversation, and discuss their understanding of what they’re doing and why!].
Yet… while we should avoid the ritual, we ought to ponder the original purposes behind it. God’s Word does command us to repent and take account of the wages of sin (death). Kingdom entrance as well as Christian living depends on your turning from sin (repentance), to the Savior, in faith. True Christians do their repenting daily: Take up your cross and follow Christ! (Matthew 16:24, Mark 8:34, and Luke 9:23). We should “face our mortality” every day the Lord gives us life and breath (cf: Lam. 3).
I would see some spiritual profit in our finding occasions for extended introspection, confession and contrition. Perhaps we could (and should?) do some of this as Good Friday and Easter approach…