Today is Ash Wednesday, the start of the season of Lent. Countless Christians around the world will receive ashes in the shape of a cross on their forehead to mark the beginning of this time of reflection and repentance. Yet, for those who do not observe the season, this can look an awful lot like legalistic rule keeping or, even worse, an attempt to receive outward praise for superficial humility.
I grew up in a church that practiced “the church calendar,” including Ash Wednesday and the Lenten season, so the practice seems natural. In my years as a pastor, though, I’ve spent more time with folks for whom the practices seem weird than good and helpful.
It’s always worth asking the question: why do we do this?
As if to compound that question, every month or two, I make a schedule of upcoming sermon texts for the church so that those of us who preach can coordinate. We have been making our way through Matthew 6 in the time since Christmas and when I divvied out the plan, I accidentally skipped over the line with Matthew 6:16-18 (Jesus’ instruction to keep fasting hidden from public view) when e-mailing my friend who was going to preach the week it should have been covered.
I only realized this after he was nearly through preparing a sermon on the subsequent verses, so I tried to figure out the most logical place to return and cover the fasting passage I’d inadvertently skipped. Circumstances pushed it to the very end of the series, which happened to be last Sunday. Call it ironic or God’s providence putting things right where they should be, it meant that I found myself preaching on the call not to show external signs of fasting days before millions of Christians received a quite visible sign on Ash Wednesday.
Do the majority of Christian churches actively snub Jesus’s instruction on a day like today by placing a visible mark of the observance on the faithful? Do the observant compound that when abstaining from this or that food or activity during Lent?
What’s meant to be a humbling act — such as receiving ash on oneself — surely can end up a showy performance. I happen to find the practice deeply meaningful, but am I letting my preferences override what’s right? What should we make of Lenten practices?
As I think about what Jesus’s point is, I find the answer is less than black-and-white.
The Lord’s concern in His words on fasting have to do with turning what was meant to be an act of repentance, an act that humbled us and focused us on our God, an act that gave us more time with Him, into an attention getter. Something other people would see us do and praise us for our greatness.
“Look how humble I am,” the religious leaders’ over the top observances declared in Jesus’s day. Such peacockery rears its ugly head today, too.
Yet, in a city like my own, where a significant part of the population does receive the imposition of ashes (even those who normally cannot be bothered to go to church), putting on the ash does little to make one stand out. Instead, it points to our sameness no matter how rich or poor, powerful or weak we may be.
“From dust you came and from dust you shall return.”
Jesus’s point wasn’t to reject the idea of a group of people doing an act of fasting or repentance together. Such was commanded and observed in the Old Testament, and there is at least some continuation of that we read in the New Testament, too (for example, in Acts 13:2-3). Done together, the showmanship is held in check by the commonality of experience. The shared need for the Lord can be the emphasis.
Should Christians take part in the imposition of ashes? The answer relates to our context: will it make us stand out or let us genuinely humble ourselves? Getting ashes and then being the only person with them on in a setting with very low observance could very well run afoul of Jesus’s call to avoid drawing attention to ourselves; in a places where the practice is common, not nearly so much.
We must also ask what we think we are accomplishing in this act (or any observance). The point of putting on ash is to be humbled. We ought not think that getting it somehow fixes anything in itself. Getting ashes (or not getting ashes) does not make one more holy, it is simply a way to reflect on the truth that we need Jesus — it is His work in our hearts that make us right with Him.
If we’re going for some sort of Ash Wednesday magic charm, we are sorely headed in the wrong direction, just as if we are going so that people will think “Hey, there’s someone holy!”
This goes for Lent in general, too. Giving up something — chocolate, social media, whatever — for a season doesn’t fix everything, or, really, anything intrinsically. If we think it does, we will be disappointed. But if setting something aside allows us to humbly recognize our need to step away from our own failings before God and helps us to hear Him guiding us, it can be a useful practice.
Like the ash, though, may it be kept quiet. I get fidgety every time I see someone announce on social media what they are giving up for Lent. We need to resist that urge. Just as the best practice of Ash Wednesday is one that brings no attention to us individually, so too, the best of any observance throughout Lent.
As Jesus says in that text I preached a few days ago, “But when you fast, anoint your head and wash your face, that your fasting may not be seen by others but by your Father who is in secret. And your Father who sees in secret will reward you.” How much better if we give something up and keep anyone from knowing, because our day-to-day activities look normal and healthy to those around us.
What Jesus’s call was about was returning to a right focus: making all our acts, most certainly our “religious” ones, focused on understanding our place before God. We are people who will return to dust; physical death makes no exceptions for us. The message of good news in the Bible is that Jesus died and overcame death for us so that physical death wouldn’t be the final period in our story. Dwelling in the loving presence of God is.
Ashes do not save us and they should not be used to make us feel special before other people. Nor should Lent. Setting aside a period to reflect or taking part in a physical act that reminds us of how much we need God’s rescues and how much He loves us, however, is precisely the sort of thing the Bible repeatedly calls us to.
Sometimes we need to stop and do something so we feel God’s care. Whether you receive ashes today or not, whether you observe any Lenten fasts or not, encountering and being changed by God’s love is what really matters.