Lent has begun in Western Christianity. And, yesterday many put ashes on their foreheads. But why?
In Matthew 6:16-18, Jesus Himself says:
“Moreover, when you fast, do not be like the hypocrites, with a sad countenance. For they disfigure their faces that they may appear to men to be fasting. Assuredly, I say to you, they have their reward. But you, when you fast, anoint your head and wash your face, so that you do not appear to men to be fasting, but to your Father who is in the secret place; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you openly.”
But, as soon as we read this passage we go and do the exact opposite! How can this be?
What’s the Relationship Between Lent and Ashes?
You may have seen a priest or other minister on the side of the road administering ashes to passers-by. With the growing popularity of “Ashes to Go,” and “drive-by-ashings,” many see this as taking the Church to the people. It’s “cool” and “hip.” It’s emergent. All of that is true.
But that’s the problem.
Lent is not Meant to be Cool
Lent is meant to be penitential. And, Ash Wednesday is our entrance into penitence. From the Episcopal (Anglican) Book of Common Prayer, we begin Ash Wednesday by praying that God create in us new and humbled hearts that would allow us to truly lament (weep over) our sins and “acknowledge our wretchedness.”
Ash Wednesday is not about possibly winning some for Christ. It’s not an evangelical moment. Honestly, it isn’t even about possibly convincing those who’ve been absent to return to the Church. It is about those in the Church, gathering together as the Church, to weep over the lawlessness being committed in the Church, i.e. the City of God. (See Ezekiel 9)
So Why the Ashes?
From Ezekiel 9:4 we learn that the ashes are a mark worn by those in the City who sigh and groan over the sins committed within the City and by the City. The ashes should not be the focal point of the day. Rather, ashes are merely a sign of the day…and, a sign of the beginning of our repentance.
For a deeper understanding, we must look to the history of Ash Wednesday. And, the relation between that history, the commandment of Christ and the witness of Scripture is the focus of this sermon:
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