(Based on a sermon delivered at Ebenezer Missionary Baptist Church, Staunton, VA, Ash Wednesday, February 13, 2013)
Why observe Ash Wednesday? Why observe the season of Lent? Notice I did not say celebrate Ash Wednesday or Lent. Celebration carries the idea of a feast and rejoicing. While there is always an element of joy in every Christian observance, the Lenten season has a different, more circumspect ethos.
Most liturgical churches, including a number of Protestant churches, observe Lent. However, many do not; especially those we call Free Churches which have less formal worship and do not generally observe a liturgical calendar. So it is a legitimate question, ‘Why observe Ash Wednesday?’
The word lent comes from an Old English word meaning ‘long,’ or ‘lengthen.’ It indicates a long time, or the lengthening of the days from winter into spring, as we anticipate the celebration of the feast of Easter, Christ’s resurrection. During this forty day season we consider Jesus’ forty days of fasting and temptation in the wilderness. Many traditions encourage an extended season of prayer, fasting, and voluntary sacrifice.
Like many religious traditions it easily lends itself to caricature. Like the Muslim feast of Ramadan which sometimes becomes an after-hours feast rather than a fast, the season of Lent can be abused by its practitioners. I was raised in a tradition that practiced Lent. The big question was, ‘What are you giving up for Lent?’ Sometimes it was something serious like chocolate, or maybe for some of the more cynical among us, something that wasn’t so dear, like asparagus. But for many, this was sacrifice for sacrifice’ sake. As if the simple act of sacrifice had atoning power. This is a caricature of the New Testament perspective.
The practice of Mardi Gras or Fat Tuesday is such a caricature. That’s when many practice excess for excess’ sake. So we feast to excess on Fat Tuesday and then plan to atone for it on Ash Wednesday and get all spiritual during Lent. So it becomes a cynic’s exercise. For some, the sacrifice signals atonement for past wrongs. This is precisely what the observance of Ash Wednesday and Lent cannot be. Such a view sees self-inflicted suffering as atonement, and the religious observance of self-sacrifice as a means of earned favor. This cannot be true.
The Psalmist tells us,
Truly no man can ransom another, or give to God the price of his life, for the ransom of their life is costly and can never suffice, that he should live on forever and never see the pit.
Psalm 49:7-9 ESV
Paul tells us,
Not by works of righteousness which we have done, but according to his mercy he saved us, by the washing of regeneration, and renewing of the Holy Ghost; which he shed on us abundantly through Jesus Christ our Savior; that being justified by his grace, we should be made heirs according to the hope of eternal life.
Titus 3:5-7 KJV
For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast.
Ephesians 2:8-9 ESV
So we see that both atonement for sins and the possession of eternal life is obtained by grace through faith, not through outward signs of self-sacrifice, or religious observances. Yet outward signs and the observation of spiritual discipline can have great effect in our lives.
Why observe Ash Wednesday? Paul expressed concern for the Galatians that in their religious observances they were turning back again to the weak and worthless elementary principles of the world, whose slaves you want to be once more. You observe days and months and seasons and years! I am afraid I may have labored over you in vain (Galatians 4:9-11 ESV). This is the crux of the matter.
The idea of humbling oneself before God in repentance and outward observance has deep-rooted biblical precedent. Job said, I have heard of you with the hearing of the ear, but now my eye sees you, and I repent in dust and ashes. Joel urged the people of God to seek Him in the face of impending judgment crying out to him in sackcloth and ashes. Jesus promised a blessing of comfort to those who mourn, and that those who weep now would later laugh.
James makes the most extreme call for outward expressions of humility and repentance,
Draw near to God, and he will draw near to you. Cleanse your hands, you sinners, and purify your hearts, you double-minded. Be wretched and mourn and weep. Let your laughter be turned to mourning and your joy to gloom. Humble yourselves before the Lord, and he will exalt you.
James 4:8-10 ESV
But this call and outward show of humility is not mourning for mourning’s sake. Isaiah deplored such a fast.
Is such the fast that I choose, a day for a person to humble himself? Is it to bow down his head like a reed, and to spread sackcloth and ashes under him? Will you call this a fast, and a day acceptable to the LORD? “Is not this the fast that I choose: to loose the bonds of wickedness, to undo the straps of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free, and to break every yoke?
Isaiah 58:5-6 ESV
As we observe Lent and see the days lengthen from winter into spring, as the creation bursts forth into new life, we do not ascribe the power of new life to the natural elements. This is not a seasonal pagan practice of earth worship, but a sanctified recognition that nature itself bears witness that death begets new life to the glory of God, and that this truth is most perfectly revealed to us in the death and resurrection of Christ Jesus.
As a young boy I had a friend named Johnny Miller. He belonged to a sect that believed it could predict the date of Christ’s return. He came to my door once and called me to come and play some football. As we walked out together he solemnly informed me that it was important to get our playtime in now. “Why,” I asked. “Well the world is coming to an end in March, and I want to have all the fun I can before then.” Similar to the revelers at Mardi Gras his spiritual preparation consisted of having a good time, at least as he perceived it. March came and went. We’re all still here.
Yet Johnny Miller was right. The end is near. I’m not referring to the end of the world. That end will come as a thief. I mean our own personal end is at hand — my end, your end. The grave is near to us. All flesh is as grass, Peter tells us, and its glory as the flower of the field. The grass withers, the flower fades. James asks, What is your life? It is but a mist that appears for a little time and then disappears.
A.W. Tozer put it this way,
Man has no say about the time or place of his birth; God determines that without consulting the man himself. One day the little man finds himself in consciousness and accepts the fact that he is. There his volitional life begins.
Before that he had nothing to say about anything.
After that he struts and boasts, encouraged by the sound of his own voice he may declare his independence of God.
Have your fun, little man; you are only chattering in the interim between first and last. You had no voice at the first and you will have none at the last!
God reserves the right to take up at the last where he began at the first, and you are in the hands of God whether you will or not (A.W. Tozer).
This is why when we apply the ashes most traditions say, “Remember man that you are dust, and unto dust you shall return,” or, “Repent and obey the gospel.”
The church calendar provides a season to remind us of our mortality and dependence on God. It is a season of voluntary humility. To humble oneself is a Christian virtue . Some may say, “Why a special season? We should always embrace humility.” I would respond, why a special day to commemorate the incarnation or the resurrection? These are year-round truths. Just as we remember these essential Christian truths on Christmas and Easter, we do well to consider our humble state and to practice the Christian virtues of prayer, fasting and almsgiving in the Lenten season. For Protestants these are oft-neglected disciplines.
The ashes speak of our dependence on God. Life comes from God. We belong to Him. This is especially so for Christians. You are bought with a price, you are not your own. We are not to be devoted to self-serving indulgence.
To exercise humility is a conscious decision to embrace the cross of Christ and voluntarily put to death sexual immorality, impurity, passion, evil desire, covetousness, anger, wrath, malice, obscene talk, lying, stealing. In short we are to accept the fact that the earthly man is under a penalty of death. So we accept the ashes and observe a season in acknowledgement of this fact. But not only that, we remember that by grace, we can put on newness of life. We look to the gift of the cross. Christ entered into our mortality and bore our sinfulness. And we live in the hope that Easter holds before us even now, through His resurrection we possess the gift of eternal life.
So why observe? Your answer makes all the difference. Is receiving the ashes an empty religious exercise or a soul-changing discipline? If it feeds pride, self-sufficiency, belief in personal merit, the sufficiency of outward action to replace inward transformation, or if it obscures the need for grace and a response of faith, then it is harmful. If taken in its true meaning, a time of repentance, dependence, humility and faith looking to Christ’s atoning death and resurrection it will give life. Every Christian feast must always ultimately hold forth the hope of the resurrection from the dead.
Why observe? Your answer makes all the difference.