Should I Observe Ash Wednesday and Lent?

As a young and growing church, Veritas is made up of members from a wide spectrum of church backgrounds. Some grew up in traditional denominations, others have always gone to contemporary churches, while for many more Veritas is your first church home. The diversity of all these backgrounds and experiences can make how we observe church tradition challenging both individually and corporately. One tradition we are asked about is the church calendar and how we observe Ash Wednesday and Lent.

What is the Church Calendar

The Church Calendar is the yearly rhythm of celebrations and fasts intended to help Christians remember and experience the truths of the gospel. It finds its root in the Old Testament where the Nation of Israel had a clear prescription of how they were to worship God at specific times of the year, to remember what God had done for them in the past, and to look forward to what he promises to do in the future. Then in the New Testament we see the idea of a Church Calendar described, but not prescribed. In Romans 14 Paul is speaking to a church made up of many people from wildly diverse spiritual backgrounds struggling to determine whether or not to observe certain days as special.

[5] One person esteems one day as better than another, while another esteems all days alike. Each one should be fully convinced in his own mind. [6] The one who observes the day, observes it in honor of the Lord. The one who eats, eats in honor of the Lord, since he gives thanks to God, while the one who abstains, abstains in honor of the Lord and gives thanks to God.
Romans 14:5-6

Rather than commanding the church to observe a calendar of special days, or forbidding them from doing so, the Apostle Paul simply encourages the church to live in the freedom we have in Christ. He says, some find it helpful others do not, both are free to do so as long as they give thanks and honor to the Lord and don’t force their convictions on others.

It is therefore ironic that for most churches, observing the church calendar has become something that is either demanded by calling certain days “Holy Days of Obligation” or forbidden by considering the whole structure unbiblical. At Veritas, we aren’t ruled by the traditions of the Church, but rather by Scripture (Mark 7:7-8), while at the same time, Scripture itself tells us that the traditions of the Church can be helpful for us, so long as they don’t take the place of or contradict Scripture.

What is Ash Wednesday & Lent?

Ash Wednesday specifically is the first day of the season of Lent, which is a 40 day period of reflection, repentance, and fasting that leads up to the celebration of the death and resurrection of Jesus on Good Friday and Easter.

Very early in the history of the Church, the Jewish Festival of Passover was replaced with a remembrance of Jesus’ death and resurrection, and Easter became a special day of celebration when many baptisms were celebrated and unbelievers would hear the gospel. Over the years it became common for churches to set aside a time of prayer, repentance, and fasting; not only for those who would be baptized but for the whole church to pray and fast for the salvation of the lost! This time of fasting to anticipate the Easter celebration was modeled after Jesus’ 40 days of fasting in the wilderness, and it became known as the season of Lent! On the first day of Lent, Ash Wednesday the church started a tradition of gathering together as a community in somber worship to pray and adopted a sign of humility and repentance that we see throughout the Bible of placing ashes on your head.

However, on Ash Wednesday we don’t heap ashes on our heads in despair and hopelessness, or as a sign of piety and holiness seeking to gain acceptance by God. We take the ashes and we make a cross! So every believer present has a physical sign of a spiritual reality. A black smudge right in the middle of their forehead as a sign for all to see that they are a sinner, but the smudge isn’t just a mark, its a cross, reminding us and the world that though we sin, our sin will not have the last word, the cross does. We are no longer marked by sin but by the cross, and we are no longer destined to merely return to ashes, but for a resurrection where we will be with Jesus!

So Ash Wednesday, in truth, is not a day where we earn or where we boast of our own piety, it’s a day where we humbly repent and trust what Jesus has earned and boast in the cross! That is why such a solemn gathering like Ash Wednesday can be so significant, because we turn from trusting in ashes and we trust in Jesus!

Should I observe Ash Wednesday and Lent?

This is an important question for many to ask, because depending on your church background this tradition that was meant to remind you of the gospel may have become a tradition that replaced the gospel. Ash Wednesday and Lent may not be a blessing that tells you of grace but instead a burden that tells you to work. However, for others this day may be deeply helpful, for you to face your own weakness and mortality, to turn from trusting in your own works, and to look toward the cross of Christ as your only hope!

So in light of Paul’s words to the church in Rome concerning what he calls “debatable matters” (Romans 14) if you are a Christian, you are free in Christ to celebrate Lent or to not, only no matter what you determine is best for you, be humble and give thanks and honor Jesus!

by Brad Snyder
Tri-Village Lead Pastor