Thoughts on Ash Wednesday and Lent

This week features Ash Wednesday and the beginning of the Lenten season. For some Christians, this is an integral point in the year, while other Christians do not celebrate or even acknowledge Ash Wednesday or the Lenten season. Historically, the Reformed/Presbyterian tradition that I place myself in  has been among those who do not observe these days; however, recently there has been an increased movement in these circles to observe them. I want to give some background into why there are some differences in how Ash Wednesday and Lent are observed and then determine if (and how) we should celebrate these days.

Is It Biblical?

Perhaps the easiest way to explain why some churches do not have Ash Wednesday services or talk about the Lenten season is that the Bible does it command us to do so. While we see Christians gathering on the first day of the week (the day that Jesus rose from the dead) from its earliest days, we do not see celebrations of these holidays in the New Testament or early church. The Lenten season, the 40 days before Easter (excluding Sundays), emerged as the church grew. It seems to have been a time of study and preparation for adults converting to the Christian faith in anticipation for their baptism on Easter. Forty days is symbolic of Jesus’s time in the wilderness (Matthew 4) as well as Moses’s time on Mount Sinai (Exodus 24:18). The origin of the imposition of ashes on Ash Wednesday is not quite as clear. This practice is different from the sacraments of baptism and communion, which are commanded; there is no  command for the imposition of ashes.

Since Ash Wednesday and Lent are not mentioned in the Bible, does that mean we should not observe these days? Keep in mind that there are numerous events not directly discussed in the Bible that we do participate in. For example, there is no command to hold worship services on Christmas Eve or Christmas Day to celebrate Jesus’s birth, yet most churches do that, and many acknowledge Advent and even participate in Advent traditions such as lighting candles. Similarly, the Bible does not command us to hold worship services on Maundy Thursday or Good Friday or to have children waving palm branches on Palm Sunday. Some churches have midweek services or Thanksgiving celebrations, and those too, are not mentioned in the New Testament.

Because we are not commanded to observe Ash Wednesday and Lent, we must say that churches are not required churches to have Ash Wednesday services or celebrate Lent and that Christians are not obligated to attend such services or keep certain traditions.

How It Can Distort the Gospel

I suspect the reason many churches do not have Ash Wednesday services is less with the fact that we do not see an Ash Wednesday service in the New Testament but more because Ash Wednesday and the Lenten season can be seen as a rules or works-based. Lent is associated with fasting, which can appear as though we are giving things up to impress God, to “get ready” for Easter. Instead of performing acts of penance to atone for our sins and to be saved, we must remember the gospel truth that we are forgiven from every sin based on what Jesus has done for us. In addition, people often perform traditions out of obligation without understanding their significance, which then become a meaningless ritual that we know God opposes (see Mark 7:1-23).

Thinking About the Church Calendar

Why are some being drawn to Ash Wednesday and Lent if it has at times obscured the gospel? I think one reason for the attraction to Ash Wednesday and Lent (as well as celebrating the Christian calendar) is that it can give us a structure to remember key truths and invite self-reflection. We all have some sort of calendar that we follow. For many Americans today, it is tied to the school year and/or national and Hallmark holidays. These holidays provoke us to remember some important things. Mother’s Day and Father’s Day call for us to remember our parents, Martin Luther King Day reminds us of the need to remember the nation’s tragic legacy of structural racism that still affects our culture today, and days like Memorial Day and Veterans’ Day remind us of the ways that people have put their lives on the line (and some lost them) to give us our present freedom. The church calendar is structured around the gospel and the person of Christ, with these days reminding us of key truths of the Christian faith.

Many of the Reformers who did away with the church calendar were trying to give people a new way of thinking and living their lives because the church calendar had lost its meaning. Today, however, many Christians do not know about the church calendar and do not have the same associations. Therefore, I think a closer connection to the church calendar could remind us of the gospel in deeper ways throughout the year and in parallel to the holidays in our land. Not only can Christians thus remember the truths of the faith through certain days, but they can also remember the Christian faith through seasons. In fact, our national and Hallmark calendars often have seasons, with decorations and time of preparation for a day (and these seasons seem to keep getting longer!). Days and seasons can help us situate ourselves in the story of the gospel, which is our story.

Reframing Ash Wednesday and Lent

As I have thought about Ash Wednesday and Lent, here are some ideas I have about how I think we can celebrate these days without turning them into meaningless traditions or attempts to earn favor with God.

  1. Remember Christian Freedom

We are free to celebrate or not celebrate Ash Wednesday and Lent. In this time, one should remember that Jesus came not to bring bondage but rather to bring freedom. Preparing for the cross and empty tomb does not mean we need to follow more rules, but instead should free us from burdens in our lives because Jesus has taken away all of our guilt and sin. If we are fasting or refraining from something, it should be to free us up to serve God in new ways. In fact, Isaiah talks about true fasting as giving freedom to others (Isaiah 58).

  1. Remember our Mortality and Sinfulness

The symbolism of placing ashes on the forehead  on Ash Wednesday points us to the truth that from dust we were created and to dust we will return (Genesis 3:19). Unless Christ returns in our lifetime, we will all die, and death is a reminder that we have fallen into sin. In addition, repentance can be connected with ashes (see Job 42:6; other passages involving dust and ashes include Genesis 18:27, Lamentations 3:16; and Jonah 3:6). Ash Wednesday can function like New Year’s Day -- as a time of reflection and examination of our lives and souls. Is there a new “resolution” you should be making, or one that you have drifted from? Don’t “fast” from something just to feel guilty, but turn from sin, knowing that Christ’s death propels you forward and that your time on earth is limited/ Perhaps it is less about fasting and more about repentance. Do some deep soul searching in this season, crying out like David in Psalm 139:23-24: “Search me, O God, and know my heart! Try me and know my thoughts! And see if there be any grievous way in me, and lead me in the way everlasting!”

  1. Draw Closer to God

The Lenten season was a time when people studied the catechism and the truths of the Christian faith before baptism, so maybe this can be at time of special study for you. Maybe you want to learn more about a particular topic or maybe there is a practice you can do during this season, such as fasting or hospitality. The goal is not to “give something up” but to “pick something up” so that you can know God in a new and deeper way. This could be a season in which this new practice becomes an ongoing habit for you (as you need to do something repeatedly for it to become a habit), or it could be something that you are able to do in a particular season but not in others, as we all have rhythms in our lives.

The Bottom Line

Of course, you do not necessarily need to celebrate Ash Wednesday and Lent to live into these principles. If having a service and a special season helps you know and live out the gospel more, than use these tools. However, if these tools cause you to become self-righteous or think you can (or need to) earn God’s approval, then you should avoid the season. In thinking about Ash Wednesday and Lent though, it is also a good reminder that there are certain things we are commanded to do -- to gather with other Christians to remember the resurrection and to celebrate baptism and communion. Those are key marks of the church that we see in the New Testament and they should not be forgotten. I pray that Ash Wednesday and Lent will remind us of God and the essential tools He has provided us for our spiritual walk.

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