Ash Wednesday, Lent, and Matthew 6:16

with 2 comments

Tomorrow is Ash Wednesday, the day marking the beginning of Lent, the 40 days leading up to Easter. People all around the world will observe Lent by fasting from this-and-that in preparation for Christ’s death and resurrection. Throughout the day, a multitude of foreheads will look like this:

I grew up in a small Baptist church in the South that does not observe Lent, and I actually did not know what Lent was until only a few years ago when I moved to Louisville, KY. The church of which I am a member now, however, does observe Ash Wednesday, Lent, etc. In fact, one of the pastors has posted a couple of insightful blog posts on the subject. However, for me, one practice in particular that does not settle well is that of putting ashes on the forehead to signify one’s participation in the season. Jesus says in Matthew 6:16-18:

When you fast, do not look gloomy like the hypocrites, for they disfigure their faces that their fasting may be seen by others. I tell you the truth, they have received their reward in full. 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. (ESV)

The following are a few observations from this passage:

  • Ash Wednesday is a day of contrition and humility before God, declaring our mortality and need of Christ, hence the ashes. We should note, however, that Jesus didn’t say, “When you fast, make sure that you mark yourself externally with a sign that matches what is happening internally.” He says the complete opposite, “When you fast, make it looks like you’re not fasting. In fact, make it look like you’re about to feast!”
  • Jesus characterizes the fasting of hypocrites with an aim to appear gloomy (sad, dismal, solemn). Rubbing ashes on one’s face nowhere in our culture, unless I’m missing something, is a sign of rejoicing. If your aim is to appear gloomy and serious about Jesus, you will achieve your goal by rubbing ashes on your forehead in the shape of a crucifix.
  • Putting our fasting on exhibition robs us of a greater heavenly reward. It’s one thing to fast and prepare yourself for the remembrance of Jesus’ death and resurrection (there’s certainly nothing wrong with this!); but it’s quite another to put your contrition on display. Jesus teaches that secret fasting demonstrates a special kind of faith and trust in a Father in heaven who rewards those who live not for the eye-gaze of men, but for the eye-gaze of God.

I could be wrong on this, and I realize there is a lot that I don’t understand, but a parade of ash covered foreheads seems to be a contradiction of Matthew 6:16-18. I’m open to differing interpretations of this text, so if you have any insights, leaving them in the comments would be helpful.

Edit: Pastor Mike Cosper of Sojourn Community Church offers some helpful insights on Ash Wednesday here.


Written by keywoodblog

February 21, 2012 at 8:37 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

2 Responses

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  1. I guess I always saw it as a small gesture in the same line as weeping and tearing your clothes and wearing sack clothes and such. Sin needs to be taken seriously, it leads to death and so this symbol of death on my forehead represents the magnitude of my sin.

    But I get where you are coming from as well. Maybe a catholic would have more insight?

    accidental devotional

    February 22, 2012 at 2:43 am

  2. Thanks for the thoughts! I agree about what it’s symbolizing for sure–contrition and the magnitude of sin and our mortality. The thing that’s confusing me, though, is the practice of announcing it, not just within the church as a community fast, but also for everyone else to see.


    February 25, 2012 at 2:46 pm

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