As a pastor you get some regular type questions, and they usually come about the same time of year. There are many surrounding Christmas, such as how many wise men were there? Was Jesus born in a cave? Doesn't the Old Testament say it is evil to bring a tree into the house and decorate it?
But there are other times as well that bring questions to the minds of people. How could it be 3 days if Jesus died on Friday and rose on Sunday? If we have a fall festival and have the kids dress up is that better than having the kids go trick or treating?
Some of these questions are wonderful and show a persons interest in following scripture as best as they can, while others are just for argument sake.
Today I want to address a question regarding Ash Wednesday. I have had over the years dozens of questions, from what time is service to, does the ash have to be on the forehead or can it be on the wrist, and probably everything in between. The entire subject is very confusing and based more on tradition than anything Jesus said or did regarding Ash Wednesday.
Let me first be clear that I never have done ash Wednesday services and will not be. That is not to offend those of you that go and have a cross of ashes painted on your forehead but let me explain why I personally disagree with it.
Ash Wednesday marks the start of the Lenten season, a period of 46 days of fasting and prayer that lead us into Easter. While most of the churches that have this service will acknowledge that it was never a command from Christ they tie it to the 40 day temptation of Jesus. I will be the first to say that is a bit of a stretch. They also would claim the basis of the ashes, are the several records in scripture of putting on sackcloth and covering themselves in ashes while mourning. If this is the case wouldn't Good Friday make more sense to receive the ashes, considering the temptation is an entirely different subject theologically not to mention the fasting and praying. When you get right down to it, many will observe the ashes but neglect the fasting even if they do the praying part.
When it boils down to it this is a matter of tradition, not all bad, and theology. Simply put, if the theology doesn't make sense then why are we doing it? Really we could put ash on our heads and fast and pray anytime of the year. In fact wouldn't it make more sense when we lose a loved one, seeking Jesus or at a time of desperation to seek God in fasting and prayer as we saw with Job and others?
So here is problem number one I personally have. The same people that usually observe the ashes, will often recite the Lords prayer as a prayer, instead of the intended model it was meant to be. Did you realize that before the Lord gives the model of praying in Matthew chapter 6, He gives warnings, not to be like the hypocrites who stand before men to be seen, instead you are to do it in the inner room in secret. You are not to use meaningless repetition, in other words, God wants to hear your heart not some predescribed montra to chant. (Mt. 6:5-8) You can pray publicly or privately but do it in the right sense. But that is just the beginning. When we fast we are not to be obvious about it. We are to make this a matter between the Lord and ourselves, so when we walk around with an ash cross on our forehead we are asking to be noticed. If you disagree with me I would personally challenge you to put on sackcloth and ashes and sit in a prostrate position and then maybe i will consider your motives. An ash cross does indeed draw peoples attention to the fact you are in mourning if that is why we do it, right? But my opinion is no more special than anyone elses, so I wonder what scripture might say about this.
Mat 6:16-18 "Whenever you fast, do not put on a gloomy face as the hypocrites do, for they neglect their appearance so that they will be noticed by men when they are fasting. Truly I say to you, they have their reward in full. But you, when you fast, anoint your head and wash your face so that your fasting will not be noticed by men, but by your Father who is in secret; and your Father who sees what is done in secret will reward you. (NASB)
certainly we have two topics here, that of fasting and praying and that of mourning. While I do agree that sackcloth and ashes were a sign of mounring, I still must maintain that this practice was long before Jesus' temptation and should be studied out carefully. We see many places in the New Testament where fasting and prayer were prescribed but don't seem to be followed by the sackcloth and ashes, let along a one day event, because we know we are not going to have that cross on for very long or people will think we don't shower, haha.
Anyway this is just the tip of the iceberg so if you decide to observe with ashes, do your homework and understand as well as observe all that goes with it traditionally. If you choose not to observe ashes, I would also challenge you to stand with clear understanding why you do not. It isn't merely enough to do something, we must be in accord of what scripture says and proceed with a clear conscience before the Lord. May the Lord give you the clarity of understanding and be able to differentiate between theology and tradition.
Till next time