What’s With the Ashes – Lent Has Begun
Last week my church held an Ash Wednesday service. You’re saying to yourself, what’s so unusual about this? Well, our church is a non-denominational church that aligns only to the Word of God and serving others, and not to any particular “religious” denomination. I’m guessing your next thought is one not too dissimilar than mine; “I thought only Catholics recognized or honored Ash Wednesday?” The answer would be, that like me, we are wrong. Ash Wednesday – officially known as the Day of Ashes – is a day of repentance, when Christians, not just Catholics, confess their sins and profess their devotion to God.
I’ll admit I too was surprised by this as I thought this was only a Catholic “ritual.” I must admit some embarrassment, as well, as I consider myself an educated man who has a better than average knowledge of the Bible and God’s Word. But I somehow had missed the significance, which, once explained to our congregation, made perfect sense to me.
Editorial comment before I return to the message. I, like many of you, have been bitten a few times by church ministries that took a great deal of liberties with God’s Word, and didn’t really teach what God had truly directed. Much like the Jewish High Priest and the Sanhedrin, these churches had their own agendas which they stated were God based, but only as long as this met their biased views. So, because of this history, I always research for myself, what is the true meaning and exactly what was Jesus and/or God conveying to us. The good news is that I have never found the message of my church to be contrary to the true Word of God.
Back to Ash Wednesday. Always the first day of the Lenten season and usually observed by Christians who choose to give up some vice, bad habit, or other non-Christian type of activity, in a manner of fasting, to show honor, reverence, and to worship God. Many eat only fish-no beef, stop drinking alcohol, eat no sugar, forgo caffeine, set aside an extra hour to pray, all in an attempt to truly show God their love and devotion. I personally have chosen two monumental challenges for me: no anger-frustration, and no more gluttony (I have never met a meal I didn’t like-to excess☹). Neither of these bad habits are what God intended for me so I choose to honor Him in this way. These are all relatively simple tasks, I believe, but to do so for an extended period of time can be quite challenging. But, to remember it is to worship, and bring glory to God for all he has done for us, it even seems easier to do, albeit a sacrifice.
Most of you know that Lent is the season leading up to God’s greatest gift to His people, Easter. Lent is 40 days, representing the 40 days Jesus spent in the wilderness, fasting, praying, and being confronted and tested by Satan himself. So Lent is the time when we honor God, by honoring Jesus and the 40 days that he spent prior to His final acts to educate and eventually save us all. For you calendar-math wizards, you’re thinking to yourself; there are 46 days between March 2 and April 17, so why do you say Lent is 40 days? Well remember Genesis 2; “Thus the heavens and the earth were completed in all their vast array. By the seventh day God had finished the work he had been doing; so on the seventh day he rested from all his work. Then God blessed the seventh day and made it holy, because on it he rested from all the work of creating that he had done.”
Thus, Sunday being a day of rest, is not counted. Forty-six days, minus 6 Sunday’s, equals 40 days.
So, as I researched this myself, I found, as our minister had stated, that Ash Wednesday is not directly referenced in the Bible, but the meaning and method true to its intent surely is. Even though it is not specifically mentioned in the Bible, the sprinkling oneself with ashes has been a mark of sorrow for sin, since Biblical times. Several times the Bible mentions people repenting in dust and ashes; for example: Mordecai (Esther 4:1), Job (Job 42:6), the inhabitants of Nineveh (Jonah 3:5-6), and Daniel (Daniel 9:3-4). Repentance in dust and ashes often was accompanied with fasting during Bible times.
The type of fast Jesus himself endorsed was the following, found in Matthew 6:16-18, “When you fast, do not look somber as the hypocrites do, for they disfigure their faces to show others they are fasting. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward in full. But when you fast, put oil on your head and wash your face, so that it will not be obvious to others 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.”
Additionally, Isaiah 58:5-7 says, “Is this the kind of fast I have chosen, only a day for people to humble themselves? Is it only for bowing one’s head like a reed and for lying in sackcloth and ashes? Is that what you call a fast, a day acceptable to the Lord? Is not this the kind of fasting I have chosen: to loose the chains of injustice and untie the cords of the yoke, to set the oppressed free and break every yoke? Is it not to share your food with the hungry and to provide the poor wanderer with shelter— when you see the naked, to clothe them, and not to turn away from your own flesh and blood?”
Jesus is calling His followers to avoid making a show when fasting, but rather to help those in need. He is calling Christians to think externally in actions of service, instead of only thinking internally toward themselves. The point of the matter is this; Jesus is interested in the condition of the heart and not merely external appearances or show. As you think about your life, repentance, and fasting…where is your heart? Are you “others-focused” or “self-focused”? Do you desire to have true repentance and fasting, or are your actions merely based on outward tradition?
So, many will ask the question, as some in my church did this past week; Should Christians celebrate Ash Wednesday? Well, as mentioned before, the Bible directly talks about repentance and fasting, but doesn’t mention Ash Wednesday specifically. Therefore, Christians are under no obligation to celebrate the holiday. The important fact to remember is that Christians should be ready and willing to repent, fast, and focus on God throughout the year and not just during the Lenten season.
In closing, I feel any inward or outward show of true praise and worship to God is worthy, as long as the true intent is for God and not solely for appearances. As I read about all the things God and His Son Jesus have done for me, I am in total awe. As I hear these things in church or other settings, tears come to my eyes, out of true reverence and the deepest, yet unworthy, appreciation. In all my life, I have been incredibly blessed. Through all the mountains, valleys, trials and tribulations, God has always shown His love for me and so blessed me, even though there have been many times I could not see it or did not appreciate it. The very least I can do is return my love, my worship, my praise, and my incredible thanks, through simple acts like celebrating Lent via my simple sacrifices.
But I think the true and critical message here is – what about the other 300+ days of each year. Why do we need Lent to show such praise and respect? God doesn’t choose only Lent to Love and protect us; He does this every day of our lives. We absolutely need to do the same for Him. God gives His love to us every day and all He wants in return, is for us to do the same!!!