“When you fast, do not look somber as the hypocrites do, for they disfigure their faces to show men they are fasting. I tell you the truth, they have received their reward in full. But when you fast, put oil on your head and wash your face, so that it will not be obvious to men that you are fasting, but only to your Father, who is unseen; and your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you.”
On Ash Wednesday millions of Christians will hear that text read, and then will go out proudly displaying the ashes on their foreheads, and not feel any disconnect. Others do, and will wash their faces after the service and go their way.
Ash Wednesday is the beginning of Lent, a season of repentance observed by much of the Christian world, originally intended as a prayerful vigil for those preparing for baptism at Easter.
There is Biblical precedent for the marking of the head with ashes. In many passages, those repenting take off their fine clothes, put on rough garments (“sackcloth”), and pour ashes on their heads (2 Sam 13:19; Neh 9:1; Jonah 3:5-6; Job 2:8, 42:6; Jer 6:26; Ezek 27:30-31). In Ezekiel 9, a man in linen is commanded to mark (make the letter “tau” /+/) on the forehead of those “who sigh and groan over all the abominations that are committed in” Jerusalem (Ezekiel 9:4 ESV).
These Biblical texts are the basis for a couple of different practices. In America, Catholics (and those Protestants who use ashes) generally make a cross on the forehead with the ashes (following the Ezekiel text); in Europe, Catholics sprinkle the ashes on the top of the head as suggested by the other texts. The imposition of ashes is accompanied by the words, “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return,” or, “Repent, and believe the Gospel.”
Catholic churches are typically filled at each mass that day, even though it is not a holy day of obligation–not a day on which Catholics are obligated to go to church. There’s clearly something about the symbol that resonates with people. Catholics of different stripes read different meanings into it. Some view the ashes in a superstitious fashion; others seem to regard them as a quasi-sacrament, or a blessing. Tom Conry, a liberal Catholic, wrote a song that is used in many places with the Pelagian refrain, “We rise again from ashes, to create ourselves anew.” But the words attached to the rite are clear: “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.” You are going to die. Think about the path you are traveling. Stop in your tracks. Turn around. Believe the Gospel.
Some Lutheran churches I knew observed the day, but omitted the ashes, taking seriously Jesus’ teaching on fasting. At Gettysburg Lutheran Seminary ashes were available, and many students wore them. One classmate, a retired Presbyterian neurosurgeon, skipped class that day–he said he hated to be around Lutherans who were feeling so good about making themselves feel miserable.
Three years ago Adventist theologian Julius Nam suggested that Seventh-day Adventists, who have not practiced the custom, might learn something from it:
Ash Wednesday is the perfect symbol for a people believing themselves to be living the antitypical Day of Atonement. Ash Wednesday and Lent represent what Adventism has aspired for—modesty, introspection, self-denial, stewardship, repentance, sanctification, even dietary care. Yes, one may criticize Catholics for the Mardi Gras tradition that just precedes this day and the ritualization of self-denial over the next 40 days. But what will that accomplish? Rather, we can join and work with Catholic, Orthodox, Anglican and other Christians in promoting a truly Christlike season of meekness, humility, and self-sacrifice—on the stewardship of the environment, health, finances, entertainment, education, etc. Possibilities are endless.
Israel had its liturgical seasons–they are the basis for the Christian liturgical calendar. God gave them seasons to remember the story of salvation (Passover), and times to repent, looking toward the judgment (Yom Kippur). They observed some festivals not by divine command but because of tradition, remembering other stories in which the people were delivered from their enemies (Purim, Hanukkah). They could be observed hypocritically–that was the basis for Jesus’ warning–but Jesus himself kept them. He didn’t say not to fast–he said, “When you fast, don’t be like the hypocrites.”
That’s the point we have to remember. Repentance must be sincere. Seasons of repentance must be times to renew our commitment, focus our attention–not to do something new, but to call ourselves to revival and reformation. Perhaps an analogy more familiar to Seventh-day Adventists would be the Week of Prayer, or the Revival. In these, we are affirming the same point understood by Jews on Yom Kippur and Catholics, Orthodox, and mainline Protestants in Lent–our lives must be marked by repentance. We grow weary, and fall asleep, and need to be awakened. We need to be shaken periodically out of our lethargy and to remember that we are dust, and to dust we shall return, and that we shall be saved only by breaking with the past, breaking with the ordinary, and believing the Good News of the Kingdom of God.