What is Ash Wednesday?

Title: What is Ash Wednesday?

Text: Genesis 3:19, Matthew 23:24, Luke 3:10-14

Time: February 14th, 2013


Ash Wednesday marks the beginning of the season of Lent on the traditional Christian church calendar.  Not all churches celebrate the Lenten season because not all churches follow the historical, traditional Christian church calendar. But many or even most churches do recognize Ash Wednesday and the season of Lent. Here’s how the Episcopal Book of Common Prayer explains Lent: “The first Christians observed with great devotion the days of our Lord’s passion and resurrection, and it became the custom of the Church to prepare for them by a season of penitence and fasting. This season of Lent provided a time in which converts to the faith were prepared for Holy Baptism. It was also a time when those who, because of notorious sins, had been separated from the body of the faithful were reconciled by penitence and forgiveness, and restored to the fellowship of the Church. Thereby, the whole congregation was put in mind of the message of pardon and absolution set forth in the Gospel of our Savior, and of the need which all Christians continually have to renew their repentance and faith.” By tradition, the pastor or minister invites the congregation “to observance of a holy Lent, by self-examination and repentance, by prayer, fasting, self-denial, and by reading and meditating on God’s holy Word. And, to make a right beginning of repentance.” We might summarize the season of Lent as a time of rededication and renewal of our faith in Jesus Christ. But the strange thing about Lent is that today, because of the effects of our secular society, much or most of its meaning is lost. For example, it’s possible to attend an old-line, or as it’s sometimes also called, mainline church, for Ash Wednesday – almost all have some kind of special service, either a noon or during the evening. But what one frequently encounters at these services is anything but a penitential church service. Most of the time the pastor or minister actually apologizes for the somber or negative tone of Ash Wednesday. Some give excuses why today we don’t talk about sin as much, or why we don’t call for people to confess or repent like in the past. The season of Lent is then put in the context of personal self-improvement, by doing things like cutting back on eating sweets or excessive television viewing, or suggesting we eat healthier foods or try to give up smoking or drinking, and other such things. But these kinds of suggestions miss the whole point of Lent. Early Christians saw the reality of sin, how it separates us from experiencing God, how it grieves the heart of God, and how it needs to be dealt with in our lives. So what’s wrong with a lot of observances of Lent today? Much of what is done is largely irrelevant to the Christian faith. We can do better then this as Christians. Let me explain.


First, Ash Wednesday is supposed to remind us of our humble earthly origins and our humble earthly end. Genesis 3:19, “. . . Until you return to the ground, since from it you were taken; for dust you are and to dust you will return.” In churches that observe Ash Wednesday, ashes are rubbed on the forehead of each individual who comes forward to the alter to participate as a symbol of the truth of Genesis 3:19 – from the dust we come, to the dust we return. This sets the mood of quiet humility, which is what is proper when confessing and repenting of sins. The somber atmosphere means that we are serious about the work of pursuing holiness. Now Ash Wednesday and the Lenten season don’t mean that we are trying to earn our forgiveness by our seriousness, or merit pardon by our activity of confessing and repenting. That may have been a mistaken view of some in the church throughout its long twenty thousand year history, but it’s not the view of anyone who knows the biblical gospel. We are saved from our sins by the grace of God through faith. Our salvation comes from the atoning work of Christ on the cross whereby we give him our sins and he gives us his righteousness. The confession and repentance of the Lenten season doesn’t add to our salvation; it doesn’t bring additional merits to the merits of Christ on our behalf. But Lent is a time of self-examination in order to confess our sins and repent of them in order to draw closer to God, to become like him in holiness, and to experience a greater reality of him in our lives. Ash Wednesday reminds us once again that without God’s spirit we are simply common physical elements. It’s sobering to think that if you cremate a human body all you have left is a container of ashes; nothing much. It isn’t our physical nature that makes us special; it’s God’s Spirit within us that gives us any worth. Lent is a time to renew and revive our spiritual side towards God. In our modern, secular world not many people have much use for humility, but instead always want to improve their self-esteem. There’s a time and place for a proper self-esteem, but too much esteem of self leads to pride – the very opposite of humility. Ash Wednesday sets the tone of humility in the life of the Christian, which is what we need more of today, especially in our modern and prosperous era. That’s why it’s so harmful when pastors try to minimize the penitential tone of Ash Wednesday by downplaying sin, remorse, confession and repentance. Some say they’d rather dwell on the positive, not the negative. But again, there’s a time and place for everything – and Lent in general and Ash Wednesday in particular is a time for what we might call a negative. But it’s a negative as part of a process that leads to a positive on Easter morning. So let’s not try to put a happy spin on Ash Wednesday because that’s defeating the purpose.


Second, we must be careful not to trivialize Ash Wednesday and Lent. Matthew 23:24, “You blind guides! You strain out a gnat but swallow a camel.” Of course, these are the famous words of Jesus speaking to the Pharisees who were so careful to observe some laws (often petty, trivial ones), while at the same time violating greater commands, the priority laws. These religious hypocrites thought well of themselves because they were following the rules, but in reality they were only obeying the minor ones. The larger laws they were routinely violating. Jesus called them out for this. Well, the same situation happens often during the church’s Lenten season through the giving up of petty, minor, low-priority vices, while at the same time neglecting or ignoring real sins. Often people will say they are “giving up” something for Lent. Now remember, in the early church Lent was a time of self-examination, self-reflection and soul-searching in order to identify sins or anything not pleasing to the Lord in one’s life. Then there was confession of sin, and repentance. By forsaking sins, Christians open up their lives to the full control of God, or totally yielding one’s will to the will of God. If Jesus is Lord, he’s Lord of all. So when modern day Christians, often times encouraged by church leaders and pastors, trivialize sin and repentance, the whole church is diminished. Some people turn Ash Wednesday into the beginning of a period of self-improvement, as if it’s all about the self, rather than about our pleasing God. Others see Lent as a period of improving their will power for a short while, temporarily abstaining from overeating or overindulging. But a temporary break in selfishness isn’t the point or purpose of the original Lent as observed by early Christians. We’re not to temporarily, or for a season, give up certain sins. If we are involved with sin in any area, we’re supposed to confess, repent and renounce it forever. It’s amazing how the sinful human flesh even seeks to twist and distort a season of repentance! I’ve never understood the logic of, for example, Fat Tuesday and Mardi Gras traditions. As I understand it, these are both attempts to gorge oneself with activities that one can’t legitimately participate in during Lent. But if these activities are sin, why increase sin just before one repents of sin? That reveals a lack of true repentance and invalidates the whole process. It’s a perverse form of legalism. It violates the spirit of repentance, which the season of Lent is supposed to encourage. We need to guard against both the trivialization of Lent and also thinking of it as a temporary repentance. Let’s deal with our true sin problems and let’s do so for good.


Third, there’s a proper way to observe Ash Wednesday and Lent. Luke 3:10-14, “’What should we do then?’ the crowd asked. John answer, ‘The man with two tunics should share with him who has none, and the one who has food should do the same.’ Tax collectors also came to be baptized. ‘Teacher,’ they asked, ‘what should we do?’ ‘Don’t collect any more than you are required to,’ he told them. Then some solders asked him, ‘And what should we do?’ he replied, ‘Don’t extort money and don’t accuse people falsely – be content with your pay.’” These are the words of John the Baptist who was a preacher of repentance. He required that people not only confess their sins and repent before him, but also that they proved their repentance valid by actually showing change in their lives. For example, if a person has truly repented of fornication, he won’t go back to fornicating. Now Ash Wednesday is supposed to be the start of a season called Lent whereby people examine their lives and confess and repent of their sins. It’s a time of renewal and revival of faith in the Lord. It’s not just taking a break from sin for a short time, like some people think. It’s not a period of time where trivial, petty and minor overindulgences are abstained. I’ve heard people say they are giving up chocolate for Lent. This is an example of trivializing the original intent of Lent. I heard one female Episcopal priest confess that she’s giving up spending too much time on the Internet using her Apple Ipad. Again, this is making light of the true intent of a season of confession and repentance. She may very well be spending too much time on her computer surfing the Web, but to hold that example up to her congregation as something to deal with during Lent trivializes the real issues of sin we are supposed to grapple with in our life. Now in the Baptist tradition, especially in the American South, there’s the tradition of Revival. Many churches hold annual “revival” meetings where the congregation rededicates and recommits their lives to the Lord. There is confession and repentance of sin – usually indicated by going forward to the alter at the invitation. This is very similar to the traditional idea of Lent, which starts on Ash Wednesday, only the historical church process involves 40 days, whereas the Baptist revival meetings might only last a couple of weeks. But the issue both are dealing with is the same – sin. The problem today is that people don’t want to deal with sin. Today we feel we have the right to be guilt-free, and sin causes guilt, so we don’t want to talk about it. This goes a long way in explaining why most churches trivialize the season of Lent. Sin is routinely trivialized, or ignored, in most churches today. But we need to get serious with sin by seriously confessing and repenting of it.


Well then what does a true Lenten season look like? How did the early Christians who started this church tradition observe it? To begin with, Lent is a tradition, to be sure, because it isn’t something that we are taught to do from the Bible. That is, we aren’t told by the Lord Jesus or any of the Apostles to observe a season of examination, confession and repentance. We’re taught from the Bible to do these always, on a regular basis. That goes without saying. But the tradition of Lent formed early on in the Christian church and it’s not a bad tradition. In the life of a healthy Christian, in the life of a healthy Christian church, Lent should be largely unnecessary. Why? Because, there should be self-examination, confession and repentance happening automatically, regularly. We shouldn’t be waiting for a special season of the year to do these things; these should be taking place all the time, every day. That’s why, in one sense, Lent is a redundant season, meaning, if a church is doing its spiritual business — spiritual examination, spiritual confession, and spiritual repentance happens regularly, all year long. But because of human weaknesses and even organizational weakness, it’ probably good for there to be a tradition of Lent. Anyway, the tradition already exists, so why not use it to achieve the good goal of holiness in the life of believers? But another important point should be made that is often overlooked. We are striving for holiness in order to please God, for the Lord’s sake primarily, to be good and obedient children. We aren’t doing it primarily for our own sake. Around Lent, some people talk like it’s all about them. In other words, they may be overindulging in something, so they decide they’ll give up that something in order to live a healthier or happier life. But again, like I said before, Lent isn’t for the purpose of running a self-improvement program in our life – at least it’s not supposed to be. That’s too selfish a goal. The plan of Lent is to clear out the sins in our lives that keep us from being what God wants us to be in life. God has a plan and purpose for our lives that we can discover and fulfill if we’re not clogged up with sin. We owe God obedience; we’re obligated to obey his will. Lent is supposed to be a time where we focus on purifying our lives of known sin so that we might love and serve him better. It isn’t for the purpose of making ourselves happier, although as a by-product of holiness, we generally are happier when we are living in the center of God’s will. Of course, we won’t defeat all sin in our lives but we can strive to confess and repent of as much of it as possible. It’s a good goal. With God’s help we can succeed in getting closer to God through the pursuit of holiness during the season of Lent. Let’s begin the process this Ash Wednesday. Amen.


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