or: why I don’t and will not celebrate Ash Wednesday.
It’s become a thing. Well, okay, fine: it’s been a thing for a long time. So maybe I should say it’s becoming a hip thing to adopt and do. Or the way round: since we live in a culture where we’re all about hip trends, it’s being done because it’s hip. And by “it” I mean the church’s growing interest–at least in a more open and publicized fashion–with keeping and/or following liturgical practices or calendars. This used to be a defining characteristic of the Catholic Church and few non-Catholic denominations–i.e., those of a strong hierarchical flavor. But now, as is often pointed out, a number of Protestant churches are adopting such practices or calendars and have begun to structure their ecclesial operations around them.
Why this has happened, what started it, who broke the mold, etc, are questions that simply do not concern me. Frankly, I don’t really care. What I do care about is the (often) unspoken and uncritically considered assumption that keeping and/or following liturgical practices or calendars are beneficial or even essential for the church–not least for the individual believer. In fact, someone recently asked me: “Don’t you think following the calendar is necessary?” (And the question was less curiosity and more, “Why aren’t you doing this?”) To which my response, was: ” ‘Necessary’? No. Faith in God’s redeeming and saving work in Christ is what’s necessary. Being transformed into the image of Christ by the sanctifying work of the Holy Spirit is necessary. Living a life that announces God’s kingdom is necessary. Keeping a calendar is not. Not even close.”
One of the places where this liturgical fascination plays out, especially now in many Protestant churches, is with the celebration of “Ash Wednesday.” Historically (dating to near the end of the 7th century CE¹ under Pope Gregory the Great) and traditionally, Ash Wednesday is a Catholic ceremony that initiates what’s known as the Lenten Season—or the Lenten Fast (to be precise). This Season, or Fast, begins 46 days² before Easter and ends on Easter Sunday. After a process of ritualistic preparation and a blessing spoken over the elements, ashes taken from the burned palm leaves of the previous Palm Sunday would be used to mark crosses on the foreheads of those attending the special Ash Wednesday mass (or ceremony). The symbolism and the act itself were designed to remind believers of their mortality (hence the typical reference to Gen 3.19 in the ceremony), thus leading them to a spirit of repentance, resulting in a desire to seek God’s mercy and forgiveness for the duration of the Lenten Fast.
I cannot begin to think of how many times I’ve heard or how many websites I’ve read that lionize Ash Wednesday because of its ceremonial symbolism–or because of how it makes people feel about themselves (or maybe others). And many of these are coming from the mouths and hands of Protestants. And one has gone so (ridiculously) far as to claim that, “if you want a faith worth celebrating, it has to start [with Ash Wednesday]”. (Wow, that was subtle). To which I would reply: Sorry, but the idea of a faith worth celebrating is not only nearly a biblical contradiction, but also–if we accept the premise–a faith worth celebrating is one that must start with Jesus Christ, not some ritualistic tradition created by man³…. And that’s a decent segue into why I do not and will not celebrate Ash Wednesday. Here are my basic reasons, in somewhat random order, and not always smoothed out for reception.
- Ash Wednesday was a celebration, a ritual, a ceremony, or a practice, or even a command that neither Jesus instituted nor the disciples/apostles maintained. Or to say this bluntly: it does not originate with either Jesus or his followers. In fact, there are very few celebrations and practices that Jesus instituted or even commanded, which the followers did maintain. And there are a few rituals and ceremonies (along with various other types) that Jesus rejected because they were merely being ceremonially and ritualistically performed–done for the sake of appearing holy, pious, faithful, etc.
- Ash Wednesday is not tied (historically) to a particular event or moment in pertaining to the life and saving work of Christ, thus making it something worth remembering or celebrating or practicing. This is unlike Christmas, Good Friday, Easter, communion, missions, offering (i.e., caring for those who cannot care for themselves), prayer, gathering together for worship, etc.
- Ash Wednesday is historically (and traditionally) tied to a much later teaching and set of doctrines pertaining to the sacraments of penance–i.e., what man must do in order to receive God’s grace and forgiveness–and then made to fit with historical events in Jesus’ life, particularly the passion week. And, I should say the “made to fit” idea is more of like: cramming a square peg into a round hole. (It’s similar to a Dispensationalist reading the notion of rapture into Pauline theology). I say that because, again, Ash Wednesday, what it means, how to celebrate it and why are not teachings found in the life and ministry of Jesus. And, for what it’s worth, what Jesus did teach would seem to stand in opposition to what Ash Wednesday represents and how it’s celebrated/practiced (see item 7 below).
- Ash Wednesday is a Catholic ceremony/ritual, and I’m not Catholic. Another way to say this would be: because my denominational heritage is rooted in the (Protestant) Reformation (specifically the Restoration Movement), I am from a heritage that unashamedly disassociates itself from all things distinctively Catholic. Thus, the traditional (i.e., post-biblical) practices, rituals, and even specific beliefs (i.e., dogmas and doctrines) that identify Catholicism as Catholicism have no place or role in my Christian life. That also means I do not see (nor do I accept) them as definitive and/or necessary things for salvation. As the NT teaches, salvation is conditioned on faith in what God has accomplished in and through the redeeming work of Christ (on the cross and from the grave) and continues to fulfill by the power of the Holy Spirit.
- Ash Wednesday is merely a liturgical calendar item, not a divine command. As I’ve already mentioned, the celebration of Ash Wednesday (and even Lent, for that matter–see the next item below) is not a biblical teaching nor command from God, and it in no way serves as the hinge on which my salvation–or at least my spirituality–swings. Or to say this differently: Ash Wednesday is a calendar item created in conjunction with man-made traditions rooted in a particular branch of Christianity, and not a divine command that is to be obeyed/followed by the Christian church. To digress slightly: since I was raised and grew up in a non-Catholic heritage and in a denomination not tied to liturgical calendars, I can honestly say I do not feel slighted in the least–or that my spirituality is somehow incomplete or even unfulfilling–because I did not keep or follow the habitually kept and followed rituals or ceremonies on that calendar. And I certainly did not come to think that my early agnosticism about liturgical calendars rendered my faith impotent and that doing things like Ash Wednesday would be some sort of a spiritual viagra.
- Ash Wednesday is a yearly, one-off ceremony/ritual, not an ongoing or perpetual spiritual discipline. Let me approach this one from another direction, using a different (yet related) topic. My wife and I refuse to celebrate Valentine’s Day. The reason? We do not believe that there needs to be a single day on which we proclaim our love for each other, or do something a little extra special for each other. And we certainly do not believe that how we handle a day like Valentine’s Day defines or determines how our relationship will be affected for the rest of the year–i.e., we don’t think or wonder: “S/he didn’t do anything for me on Valentine’s Day… Oh crap, I hope s/he still loves me.” Rather, we understand and believe that every day is an opportunity to proclaim and show our love for each other. Every day is a chance to so something a little extra special for each other. And we do all that we can to make sure we take those opportunities. And if we miss a day (or, in our case: deliberately refuse to take part in a man-made, Hallmark holiday), we know that our relationship–our marriage–is rooted deep enough not to be rattled because of a simple lapse. To apply this to Ash Wednesday and why I do not and will not celebrate it: I do not need a special, one-off day to remember my mortality, to be reminded of my sins before a holy and righteous God, to be brought to a state of repentance, and to confess my need for his forgiveness. I don’t need a special day because I was raised–both denominationally and theologically–with the understanding that every day is an opportunity to remember, to be reminded, to repent, and to seek forgiveness, and that we must always take advance of that opportunity. And not wait for a specific day on a calendar. And the same goes for things like Lent, to which Ash Wednesday is connected. Lent is a designated time in the year where people “fast” from things that otherwise distract them from being cognizant of and faithfully obedient to God. Thus, certain things are given up for the 40/46-day fast–only to be resumed afterward. While part of me wants to say: “If those things keep you from God throughout the year, why only give them up once a year? Why not given them up entirely?” But the other part of me wants to say: “Why only limit ‘fasting’ to once a year? Why not make it a spiritual discipline to be practiced more frequently? Because only doing things once a year, like clock-work, would seem to suggest loyalty to a calendar rather than a loyalty to working out your salvation in fear and trembling on a constant basis.”
- Jesus’ teaching on fasting would seem to speak against how Ash Wednesday is understood and performed. (This is probably one of the leading–if not definitive–reasons why I do not and will not celebrate things like Ash Wednesday). On several occasions, I have heard and read people talk about the practice or ceremony of Ash Wednesday and they will refer to Matt 6.16-18–either directly or as an allusion. It’s always struck me as an example of cognitive dissonance to use this passage as a way for advocating Ash Wednesday. As already mentioned, Ash Wednesday is a ceremony related to a fast and one that includes the practice of applying ashes to a person’s forehead (or the back of the hand). Thus, something is being done to alter the physical appearance of the individual in order to physically mark them as celebrating a particular calendar event–one that is meant to promote humility, piety, and holiness, faithfulness, etc. But Jesus clearly says: that sort of thing is what “the hypocrites do…they distort their faces so that they will be noticed by men when they are fasting. I tell you truly, that will be their [only] reward” (6.16). Thus, that is not what the disciples are to do. Rather, as Jesus tells them: “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” (6.17-18). How can a teaching that says not to do something become a go-to text for doing the very kinds of things it says not to do? Could it be because we live in a culture that thrives on being seen and recognized and even celebrated because of our outward displays of goodness, and we’ll do whatever we can to justify the behavior? If so, then shame on us.
One final word before closing out this protracted post. Please know that I am no way saying that Ash Wednesday (by itself) is sinful or evil. All that I am saying is that I do not see a need for Ash Wednesday, and I am not compelled to take part in its celebration. I say that because it is not a necessary (or even biblical) ceremony for the either the church or the individual believer to keep. It’s a calendar item from a much later and distinct tradition, and something that is rooted in or prompted by a much larger theological presupposition–one that has its own set of problems. And it is certainly not a divine command nor a ceremony that is necessary for one’s salvation. However, the moment things like Ash Wednesday become proffered as necessary or essential or determinative for one’s faith, or that it should become a normative Christian practice or ritual because of its (assumed) spiritual benefits for the individual–which can only be obtained in that particular ceremony; that is the moment when it flirts with becoming sinful and evil.
¹ Some will say it needs to be pushed to the 10th century CE. Which is right? I don’t really care.
² Most traditions count it as 40 days, instead of 46—the difference being that the six (6) Sundays that fall between Ash Wednesday and Easter Sunday are not included as fasting days.
³ As I’ve mentioned before, though I cannot remember when, I use “man” primarily in the old sense, meaning: human being. But I also use it, particularly in this context, as a contrast to God–i.e., God is divine, we (human beings) are not.