Sunday, March 31, 2019
We are again approaching the Easter season and many will be participating in what is known as Lent. Lent lasts for about forty days and is supposed to be a time of self-denial, moderation, fasting and the forsaking of sinful habits. It is a special day of preparation for each person, getting them spiritually ready for the celebration of Easter. Lent is celebrated by the Orthodox Churches, a few Protestant groups, and especially by Catholics.
One of the main aspects of Lent for Catholics is Ash Wednesday. Ash Wednesday marks the beginning of Lent, and on this day, ashes are applied on the forehead of the participating Catholic, referencing, to some extent, the Old Testament concept of using ashes during fasting or mourning (for example, 2 Samuel 13:19; Esther 4:1; Job 2:8; Daniel 9:3). To make these special ashes, the Church uses palm leaves that are “blessed” by the priest and sprinkled with “holy water.”
But interestingly, this special day of preparation named Ash Wednesday comes right after a day called Shrove Tuesday or Mardi Gras, which is French for “Fat Tuesday.” Mardi Gras is generally a day of decorative parades and festivities, and often a time of drunkenness, lust, revelry and wild parties, especially in cities like New Orleans. Not only is it celebrated in many cities in the U.S., like Mobile, Galveston, St. Louis, Orlando, and San Diego, but also in other countries, including Brazil, Italy, France, Colombia, India and Canada.
But the proud revelry of Fat Tuesday certainly tends to negate the intended purity and significance of Ash Wednesday in many cases. We know of many Catholics who see Mardi Gras as “one last wild party” before getting “serious” with God. It is a mockery of God and of the person’s supposed new life ahead. The participant is a lustful glutton and carouser on Tuesday, but on Wednesday, he suddenly becomes a holy vessel of God because he is wearing ashes in the shape of a cross on his forehead. God is not fooled by this, and neither are many observers.
Ash Wednesday does indeed intend to convey the idea of public fasting, but for many people, fasting has seemed to have lost its meaning. The prophet Isaiah spoke of a true fast, one coming from the heart and not through external appearances (Isaiah 58:3-7).
But Jesus, in the gospel of Matthew, clarified even farther the proper way to fast...
v. 16 - And whenever you fast, do not put on a gloomy face as the hypocrites do, for they neglect their appearance in order to be seen fasting by men. Truly I say to you, they have their reward in full.
v. 17 - But you, when you fast, anoint your head, and wash your face,
v. 18 - so that you may not be seen fasting by men, but by your Father who is in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will repay you.” (NASV)
So why the ashes in public? Why does anyone else have to know when you’re fasting? Is it a true fast, or is it all just for show, like with the hypocrites? Jesus said that fasting should be a private matter. Why would any church (Catholic or otherwise) that claims to follow Jesus Christ purposely disobey His specific commands about the manner of fasting by placing ashes on the foreheads of its members for display? It is true that no one is forced to do this, but they are certainly encouraged by the Catholic Church to do this public (and unbiblical) ritual.
Notice in the context of Matthew 6:1-6 that Jesus said that those who practice their holiness publicly (to be seen of men) already have their reward… and that reward is the attention and admiration of those who notice them. But that’s it. It is the reward of the hypocrite. This is his only reward. He doesn’t get a reward from God. His “pious” works were wasted and his religion is a sham.
The truth is, those participating in Ash Wednesday are acting more like Pharisees than they are Christians. Jesus strongly condemned all forms of hypocrisy, especially the religious pretension of the Pharisees (Matthew 23).
But to be fair, the Catholic Church is not the only group to be infected with hypocrisy. It can be found in Orthodox and Protestant churches, as well. Nevertheless, to encourage your members to openly disregard the teaching of Jesus so that they can be noticed of men is to put them in a dangerous position… it is indeed fasting like the hypocrites. Jesus said of the Pharisees and scribes:
“You hypocrites, rightly did Isaiah prophesy of you, saying, ‘This people honors Me with their lips, but their heart is far away from Me.’” (Matthew 15:7-8 - NASV)