Wednesday, February 18, 2015

Fasting: Ashes and Ash Wednesday

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 (Matthew 6:16-18).

Ash Wednesday marks the first day of Lent. Lent is the 40 fast days before Easter. The name, as you probably figured out, comes from the practice of the ancient church of sprinkling ashes on the heads of penitents as a physical act of contrition and repentance for their sin. Ashes are a symbolic mark of humiliation, contrition, and mourning (Harrison, Bromiley and Henry 1990). During Lent, many of the faithful commit to fasting or giving up certain types of luxury as a form of penitence. Many churches strip their altars of candles, flowers, and other devotional offerings, while crucifixes, statues, and other elaborate religious gear may be veiled in violet.

I grew up in a congregation of the Lutheran Church – Missouri Synod that practiced the imposition of ashes on Ash Wednesday. That is to say, on Ash Wednesday, parishioners would line up during the worship service to have the pastor put ashes on their head. The people would approach the pastor, who was standing in the front of church. In his hand he held a silver vessel containing an unappealing black substance – the burned remnants of the palm fronds from the previous year’s Palm Sunday mixed with oil. As the people would come to the pastor, he would blacken his thumb with the ashes and make the sign of the cross on the person’s forehead. During this process he would tell each parishioner, “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.”

I never realized, however, that this was "fasting." Growing up when and where I did, I also didn’t realize that what was to me a natural part of the Ash Wednesday worship service was, in other places, quite a contentious issue.

Later, attending college in what is referred to by some as the “Bible Belt,” I met many people, Christians and non-Christians, who were shocked by the worship practice I shall refer to as the Imposition of Ashes. Lutherans were few in number in Murray, Ky. All my friends were some flavor of evangelical protestant. Knowing that I professed to be a Christian, when the inevitable discussion would arise, many would quote this passage of scripture to me. “Jesus said, ‘…do not look somber as the hypocrites do, for they disfigure their faces to show men they are fasting.’ This practice is not Biblical.” I had to admit that I had not thought about it in that way before. It certainly seemed logical, when cast in that light. My only allies on campus were the Roman Catholics, who also practiced this tradition. This only made my position worse. Most of the evangelicals thought of Lutherans, if they thought of them at all, as “Catholic light.” They tended to think of Roman Catholics as some kind of non-Christian cult.

Jesus, however, doesn’t forbid fasting. In fact, it seems as if he sort-of expects his followers to fast. Jesus begins by saying, “When you fast…” The issue with fasting is not, “Should it be practiced?” Jesus takes it for granted that his followers would fast. When Jesus was lead by the Spirit into the desert to be tempted by the devil, he himself fasted forty days and nights[1]. This issue is, rather, does our fast merely make an outward show of repentance, or do our hearts feel true sorrow and humility. In his commentary, Paul Kretzmann explains Jesus’ words this way:

Again the Lord emphasizes the contrast. A mere outward show of repentance without change of heart does not befit the followers of Jesus. Fasting they may practise [Sic.] indeed; that is a laudable custom and may be productive of good. But in doing so, all ostentation must be avoided. It is the heart that should feel the sorrow and humility, not the body. Therefore the usual daily washing and anointing should not be omitted, in order that men might not even know the conditions (Kretzmann 1921).
Fasting was an integral part of the Jewish religion. The problem Jesus had with “fasting” was not the practice, but rather that the hypocrites turned this profitable practice into a work of self-glorification. It is clear from Matthew’s Gospel that the hypocrites were neglecting their daily washing etc., in order to give the impression that the fast was taking a great toll on them.

They neglected the daily care of the face, to make the effect of the semiweekly fast appear all the more harrowing. It was an empty show in order that they might play a more important figure and get the reputation of greater holiness. They have all the reward they will ever get. They need expect nothing from the Lord (Kretzmann 1921).
Fasting, such as that undertaken by some during the Lenten season, and including the Imposition of Ashes, is neither commanded nor forbidden by Holy Scripture. The decision whether or not to do these things has been left by God to the individual Christian. This issue – what is referred to by theologians as “Adiaphora” – was important to Luther and the reformers. While they wished to see many of the historic practices of the church retained, they objected to Rome’s assertion of its authority in these matters of Adiaphora, and to require them as necessary for salvation. Luther writes the following to the congregation at Esslingen, in a letter responding to his critics when they accused him of requiring works (particularly private confession):

…Likewise I prevent no one from fasting, making a pilgrimage, eating meat, observing days, etc., if only it is done of one’s own accord, and not done as though he had to do it in conscience and as though omitting it would be a mortal sin, as the Pope with his blind leaders raves… (Pieper 1953).
In the Augsburg Confession Philipp Melanchthon writes Article 26 to address complex rules and regulations devised by the Church commanding fasting:

First, the chief part of the Gospel – the doctrine of grace and of the righteousness of faith – has been obscured by this view[2]. The Gospel should stand out as the most prominent teaching in the Church, in order that Christ’s merit may be well known and faith, which believes that sins are forgiven for Christ’s sake, be exalted far above works. Therefore, Paul also lays the greatest stress on this article, putting aside the Law and human traditions, in order to show that Christian righteousness is something other than such works (Romans 14:17). Christian righteousness is the faith that believes that sins are freely forgiven for Christ’s sake. But this doctrine of Paul has been almost completely smothered by traditions, which have produced the opinion that we must merit grace and righteousness by making distinctions in meats and similar services. When repentance was taught, there was no mention made of faith. Only works of satisfaction were set forth. And so repentance seemed to stand entirely on these works (McCain, et al. 2005).
This view of fasting and human tradition presented in the Book of Concord is distilled by Pieper in his work, “Christian Dogmatics”:

Scripture instructs Christians to regard teachers who pretend to know more than Christ’s Word contains as bloated ignoramuses (1 Tim. 6:3 ff.). And those who attempt to impose what the Word of Christ leaves free, e.g., forbidding to marry or commanding to fast and abstain from food and drink, are properly regarded by the Christians as arrogant deceivers and disseminators of doctrines of devils (1 Tim. 4:1-5; Col. 2:20-23). The Pope may impose a fast on himself, but on no one else in the world (Pieper 1953).
Working to curb one’s sinful desires through the application of bodily discipline can, at times, be appropriate and necessary (McCain, et al. 2005). It should never be taught, however, that such outward activities earn God’s favor. Only the Lord can look into people’s hearts and know if their actions stem from penitence, or if they are simply putting on a show for men. Like many other historic practices of the church, the Imposition of Ashes has been retained in the Lutheran Church because it is profitable, and not as a work to merit righteousness. It has been the Lutheran view, from the time of the Reformation until today, that the Church should not do away with good traditions and practices, but only those things that take away from the Gospel.

The Imposition of Ashes is one of those good traditions. It seems to get people’s attention, and not just because of the strange black mark on the forehead. Hearing the pastor’s reminder that you are dust – perishable – is humbling. Hearing him tell every man, woman, and child that they will return to that dust someday is sobering. As a young person I remember looking around at all my friends and neighbors, young and old, rich and poor, thinking that, no matter what our earthly differences might be, we were equal in one aspect – we would all die. We would all die, and there was nothing within our power to change that fact. We were, in fact, dead already, in our sin[3]. We could not ignore our sin.

After leaving church on Ash Wednesday, sometimes people would forget that they had a weird, nasty smear of ashes on their forehead. They would inadvertently scratch their foreheads sometime and be reminded by the residue on their finger that they were dust, and to dust they must one day return. Before going to bed, looking in the mirror, one would once again be reminded they were marked with the black stain of sin, and that they were dust, returning to the dust from whence they came.

Those ashes, however, are drawn on the forehead in the sign of a cross. Not as if the cross is some kind of magic sign to ward off evil, but also as a reminder. The cross reminds us that the guilt of mankind’s sin has been paid for by Christ’s death. The blood of Christ shed on the cross has justified us. We did not participate in Christ’s saving work at all. It happened, as St. Paul wrote, while we were still powerless:

But God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us. Since we have now been justified by his blood, how much more shall we be saved from God’s wrath through him (Rom 5: 8-9).
Fasting can be good training for our will, but God does not command particular times, places, or forms of fasting (Luther 1991). There is nothing we have to offer, no work we can do, no ceremony we can perform, in order to merit God’s forgiveness. God has given us forgiveness as a gift, through Christ Jesus, and he sends His Holy Spirit to us to create faith in our hearts through the means of his Word and Sacraments. He enables us to do works that please him – not in order to earn his grace – but to glorify his most holy name. Fasting, and other traditions like the Imposition of Ashes, can help us to look at our sin, confess it, and acknowledge our need for a savior. These traditions, used properly, and not imposed as a law, focus us on Christ and Him crucified.

Works Cited

Harrison, Everett F, Geoffrey W Bromiley, and Carl F Henry, . Wycliffe Dictionary of Theology. Peabody, Massachusetts: Hendrickson Publishers, Inc., 1990.

Kretzmann, Paul E. Popular Commentary of the Bible: New Testament. Vol. 1. 2 vols. St. Louis, MO: Concordia Publishing House, 1921.

Luther, Martin. Luther's Small Catechism. Translated by Concordia Publishing House. Saint Louis, Missouri: Concordia Publishing House, 1991.

McCain, Paul Timothy, Robert Cleveland Baker, Gene Edward Veith, and Edward Andrew Engelbrecht, . Concordia: The Lutheran Confessions. Translated by William Hermann Theodore Dau and Gerhard Friedrich Bente. St. Louis, MO: Concordia Publishing House, 2005.

Pieper, D.D., Francis. Christian Dogmatics. Vol. 3. 3 vols. Saint Louis, Missouri: Concordia Publishing House, 1953.

End Notes

[1] Matthew 4:1-2

[2] Not only the people, but also those teaching in the churches, have generally been persuaded to believe in making distinctions between meats, and similar human traditions. They believe these are useful works for meriting grace and are able to make satisfaction for sins (AC XXVI 1).

[3] Ephesians 2:1