A strange little holiday is coming up, and if you haven’t celebrated it before, should you and how would you?
Almighty God, you have created us out of the dust of the earth. Grant that these ashes may be to us a sign of our mortality and penitence, that we may remember that it is only by your gracious gift that we are given everlasting life, through Jesus Christ our Savior.
Then the pastor or an elder might put a small, ashen cross on your forehead. Remember you are dust, and to dust you shall return.
Today is Ash Wednesday, the beginning of the Lenten season.
Crosswalk’s contributing editor Kelly Givens gave a neat nutshell description of the day. “Often called the Day of Ashes, Ash Wednesday starts Lent by focusing the Christian’s heart on repentance and prayer, usually through personal and communal confession.”
Like the extended fast it precedes, Ash Wednesday is a somewhat controversial holiday. Some say it’s a Catholic holiday about atoning for your own sins; others claim it’s a vital tradition for honoring God as we prepare for Easter.
What should we believe?
Ash Wednesday is nowhere in the Bible, the same as Lent. Jesus never says, “Thou shalt observe a day of ashes and then 40 days of fasting.” None of the apostles set down the law for this observance either.
Should modern, evangelical Christians observe this day, then? Or is it just a weird holdover from the Middle Ages and the Catholic church?
Obeying Traditions in the Bible?
Believers are under no obligation to observe either Ash Wednesday or the Lenten season that follows. God never commands it, any more than he commands Christmas or Easter celebrations. Some Christians like Martin Luther (and his followers) faithfully observed this holiday and many, many other holy days; some, like the Puritans, eschewed every major holiday as an unholy spectacle and infernal waste of time.
At this point, you’re left to discern where your heart is in the matter.
God originally gave the Israelites holy days to observe so that they would rest, meditate on his laws and celebrate his goodness.
“it shall be a statute to you forever that in the seventh month, on the tenth day of the month, you shall afflict yourselves [or fast] and shall do no work, either the native or the stranger who sojourns among you. For on this day shall atonement be made for you to cleanse you. You shall be clean before the Lord from all your sins.
“It is a Sabbath of solemn rest to you, and you shall afflict yourselves [or fast]; it is a statute forever” (Leviticus 16:29-31).
Later, though, God rebukes Israel for going into these same holidays with the wrong spirit. “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” (Isaiah 58:5-7).
This is a powerful call to a life that shakes off religious prescriptions if that’s what is needed to most effectively respond to hurting people.
Looking at this verse, Gary Wilkerson pointed out, “What a beautiful vision of God’s glory manifesting through his people, and what a powerful corrective to our concept of how to serve him. God is calling forth a flame-breathing, faith-inducing, demon-defeating, hope-filling, evil-conquering, love-spreading people. The destinations he lays out for us may be unimaginable to the world, but they cannot be to those who take on his name.”
God offers an intense new way of living to those who view traditions in their correct light and pursue him in everything they do.
Your Heart Is What Matters
For several hundred years, church leaders have used ashes as a sign of the beginning of Lent, when we mourn for the heavy impact of sin, meditate on the cost Christ’s sacrifice and anticipate our ultimate freedom from sin.
Time Magazine explained, “People generally wear the ashes — which symbolize penance, mourning and mortality — throughout the day to publicly express their faith and penance.”
In my church, an Ash Wednesday service included several scriptures to remind us of sin’s grave impact, and then a pastor would lead us in several moments of communal confession—acknowledging as a community how our sins have separated us from God—in addition to silent moments of private confession. We would finish by taking communion and receiving the ash cross on our foreheads.
Our pastor usually took this moment to remind us that, as we moved into the Lenten season, we should never lose sight of the seriousness of sin; it represents everything opposite of God’s will in the world, and it made Jesus’ sacrifice necessary.
Ash Wednesday was, and is, a reminder of sin’s severe cost. It isn’t something to chuckle at or brush off.
Sin required God’s Son to die a gruesome death.
That’s worth dwelling on for a minute or two, especially for those of us who are far removed from Solomon’s Temple and the daily sacrifices where people regularly witnessed a life being taken in payment for their sins.
Whether you go to a special service and get oily ashes wiped on your forehead or you simply spend an evening in solemn prayer in your living room or a little coffee shop is beside the point.
The worship, due reverence and confessions that you give to God are what matters. The action that you take afterwards to combat the effects of sin in the world, to help those in need, to have compassion on God’s children who are suffering is what matters.
Your heart is what matters.
Choosing Ways to Honor God
If you’re interested in investigating further, Trevin Wax offered a very balanced discussion for and against Lent on The Gospel Coalition, and Jennifer Woodruff Tait wrote a great article on Christianity Today exploring the traditions surrounding Ash Wednesday.
If you’ve never partaken in an Ash Wednesday service, it might be worth investigating one at a local church and seeing how God speaks to you.
If you grew up in a legalistic tradition where you were forced to observe Ash Wednesday and the ceremony reminds you too much of the sterile religiousness that you left behind, don’t go back! Instead maybe celebrate what God’s done in your soul and heart with a meal in the company of good friends or with a quiet evening at home.
Whatever you do, honor God with this day.
It might be as simple as meditating on these three verses that offer a snapshot of God’s gracious act of creation, the cost of our decision to live apart from him and the desperate need in us for his forgiveness:
“Then the Lord God formed the man of dust from the ground and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life, and the man became a living creature” (Genesis 2:7 ESV).
“By the sweat of your face you shall eat bread, till you return to the ground, for out of it you were taken; for you are dust, and to dust you shall return” (Genesis 3:19).
“Purge me with hyssop, and I shall be clean; wash me, and I shall be whiter than snow. Let me hear joy and gladness; let the bones that you have broken rejoice. Hide your face from my sins, and blot out all my iniquities. Create in me a clean heart, O God, and renew a right spirit within me” (Psalm 51:7-10).
Remember you are dust, and to dust you will return, unshackled at long last from sin and suffering thanks to our Savior’s great sacrifice.