Exploring the origins and meaning of this important holy day.
By Rev. Dr. Charles R. Schulz, Assistant Professor of Theology
On March 2, “traditional” Christian denominations will celebrate Ash Wednesday. Although this church “holiday” (holy day) has been culturally important in western civilization since the Middle Ages, many today might well wonder why Christians should recognize the day at all. If anything, the days before Ash Wednesday, popularly known as Mardi Gras, with their celebration of the pleasures of earthly life, resound much more naturally in our contemporary culture.
How does the typical American know it is Ash Wednesday? On this day you might notice some of your neighbors and coworkers walking around with an ashen cross marked on their foreheads—an odd and rather unnatural tradition. For some Protestant friends, it appears to be an unbiblical leftover from Roman Catholicism. To some secular friends, it holds an air of unhealthy self-deprecation and illustrates exactly why they don’t care to practice any religion. But for Lutherans, along with Roman Catholics, Methodists, Episcopalians, and an increasing number of others, Ash Wednesday offers a message and meaning which is essential to the very practice of the Christian life.
Ash Wednesday arose as a consequence of the annual celebration of Easter, itself reflecting the even more ancient annual celebration of the Jewish Passover. In the Christian calendar, Easter is the holiest of holy days, a day of joy recalling the victory of Christ over the grave and the gift of eternal life to all who believe in Him. In the church’s reasoning, the best way to celebrate such a holy day was to prepare for it by dedicating the preceding days to give heightened attention to one’s own relationship with God. This was like the Old Testament practice of the Israelites excluding leavened bread from their homes in the days around Passover (Ex. 12).
The logic also reflects God’s command to the Israelites to prepare themselves with three days of consecration before they received His covenant from Mount Sinai (Ex. 19: 10-15). So Christians developed days of preparation and consecration. Recalling Christ’s own forty-day fast before His earthly ministry, the forty days of Lent found their place in the Church year. In fact, it was referenced by the canons of the Church council at Nicea in 325 AD.
Coming as the first day of Lent, Ash Wednesday marks the solemn entrance into this Christian “season” of reflection and repentance. Again, it may appear particularly strange in our culture, which presumes that our own flourishing as human beings must march the way of self-acceptance, positive self-esteem, self-assertion, and even pride in ourselves “just the way we are.” Completely counter-culturally, Ash Wednesday gives voice to the biblical admonition to turn from our sins and humble ourselves before God (e.g., James 4:10: “Humble yourself in the sight of the Lord and He will lift you up”).
From God’s first inquiry after the fallen Adam—“Where are you?”—to the cry of the prophets against the greed, self-indulgence, and injustice of their societies, to Jesus’ own condemnation of hypocrisy, the Bible warns us against the presumption that all is well with us. It urges us to hear God’s own judgment on sin so that we might turn from our sins, receive forgiveness in the name of Christ, and learn to walk more faithfully in His ways. The Bible itself provides examples of communal periods of repentance: “Declare a holy fast; call a sacred assembly” (Joel 1:14). Perhaps most famously, the people of Nineveh responded to Jonah’s preaching with sackcloth and ashes for the whole metropolis, including the livestock! (Jonah 3:6-9)
As meaningful as ever
For Christians today, it is our confidence in Christ which gives us courage to humble ourselves before God, admit our unworthiness, and confess our sins to Him with public acts of repentance. Having a “Christ-esteem” which is based on the assurance of God’s forgiveness and acceptance on account of the sacrifice of His Son our behalf, we know ourselves to be God’s children, even as we declare that we are “poor miserable sinners,” or, as St. Paul admitted, “I know that in me, that is, in my flesh, dwells no good thing” (Rom. 7:18).
The larger framework of the Christian faith includes God’s good creation, grace, resurrection, Holy Baptism into Christ, the life to come, and the faithfulness of God which triumphs over all our faithlessness. Thus, as we receive the ashen cross on our foreheads on Ash Wednesday, as we hear the deadly words, “Remember you are dust and to dust you shall return” (cf., Gen 3:19), we know full well that this is neither the beginning nor the end of our faith. It marks our own willingness to hear God’s Word of judgment and it expresses our own desire for His grace to claim us again as His own, cleanse us with His mercies, and direct our lives in His ways of love and holiness by His Spirit. Exactly because the ashen mark takes the shape of the cross, Ash Wednesday points us through our own recognition of our sins to see the assurance we have in the death of Christ on our behalf.
For many Christians, then, Ash Wednesday is not a bitter pill to swallow every year. Rather, it’s the bitter sweet of a rich dark chocolate. Honestly admitting our own failings in our life before God is bitter, but God’s own sweet grace grants us hope and even confident joy in the knowledge of Christ for us.
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