Before we get too far, I just want to say that I don’t believe there is anything wrong or inherently sinful in observing Ash Wednesday. Many churches and denominations wholeheartedly embrace this ritual and the premise behind it is absolutely beautiful. So, for those of you that partake in Ash Wednesday, this is not meant to offend. This is just my personal take.
Our son is in his first year at a Lutheran elementary school. We are not currently Lutheran nor have we ever been. And while theologically we stand on the same solid ground, Lutherans, being much more liturgical and rooted in tradition than we are at our church, have afford us some interesting conversations:
Mom, why wasn’t sister baptized when she was a baby? Though he has never asked why he also wasn’t.
Mom, why don’t we celebrate the Day of Epiphany? I personally view the day of epiphany as the day he finally became fully potty trained. Amen?
So with Ash Wednesday on the horizon, I’m trying to be proactive in teaching him about Ash Wednesday – and why we don’t do it. (Here is the Lutheran [Missouri Synod] Church’s take on Ash Wednesday for your personal reference: Remember that You are Dust.) And here are my (top) 3 reasons I don’t observe Ash Wednesday:
- There is no New Testament precedence for Ash Wednesday: I’m naturally highly skeptical of doing anything just for tradition’s sake. Ash Wednesday was first observed in 325 A.D. Almost 300 years after the death and resurrection of Christ. He was pretty clear about observing Communion. If this was something we were really supposed to do, don’t you think He may have mentioned, “oh, and hey…46 days before Easter (the day after you get drunk and participate in general debauchery, a.k.a. Fat Tuesday/ Mardi Gras) go to your local church to have them put ashes on your head as a sign of repentance and reverence.”?
- Ashes Don’t Have Anything to do with Sanctification: In the Old Testament, ashes and mourning and sacrifice were very regularly a part of repentance from sin as the Law stipulated. But since Christ, we are now under grace. (Though we are never to take advantage of grace – Romans 6:1) If we are believers, God does not want us to live as though we are all still sinners under wrath. Through Christ we have been made children and heirs of God. (Galatians 4:7) God is not impressed with our ashes, God looks at the heart. (1 Samuel 16:7) We are to exude joy, not sorrow, for Christ’s death and resurrection has cleansed us from all of our unrighteousness. (1 John 1:9) In many traditions, Ash Wednesday is also a day of fasting. In Matthew 6:16-18, Jesus specifically says to wash your face and not let anyone know you are fasting because it is between you and God. Ashes on your forehead declare to the world that you are fasting.
- If the Ashes on Your Forehead are the Only Evidence of Your Relationship with Christ: You’re Doing it Wrong. In John 13:34-35, Jesus clearly says that people will know you are His disciple by how you love. Love God. Love people. That’s it. If the ashes on your forehead are more accurately an outward visual of the ashes in your heart than an actual symbol of repentance, then what’s the point? It seems there is a big to-do with having ashes applied but all too often no heart change or surrender or humility to go along with it. “This people honors Me with their lips, but their hearts are far from Me.” (Matthew 15:8)
Ashes are amoral. They don’t change your standing with God one iota. So whether you participate in ash-wearing or not, remember it is only through Jesus that we are made right with God. My point is not to make you reconsider every churchy tradition you’ve ever participated in (or maybe it is?). My point is for you to consider freedom over dogma. It is for freedom that Christ has set us free (Galatians 5:1) so don’t ever do anything out of obligation, but only walking in the freedom of what Christ has called you to do. It is about a relationship – not religion.
There is no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus. (Romans 8:1-2) We do not need to be reminded of our sin as much as we need to be reminded of His forgiveness, His mercy, and His crazy, unending, all-consuming love.
So what about you? Do you celebrate Ash Wednesday? Why or why not? And what does it mean to you? I’d love to hear your thoughts on this and gain new insight!