Imposing ashes is one of the distinctive attributes of Western Christianity. It is the beginning of Lent – the Great Fast of Spring. Lent begins on Wednesday a traditional day of fasting for weekly practice. Friday is the other traditional fast day. Carnivale and Mardi Gras are celebrations before the fast begins. They are celebrations of being alive. Shrove Tuesday – the English version of Mardi Gras – is much more subdued. It is a time for giving thanks for being alive.
My first participation in the ritual of Ash Wednesday was while I was in seminary. I was working as a hospital chaplain near Atlanta. It was part of our practicum or “field education.” A few Roman Catholic lay ministers brought ashes to the hospital and went to every patient’s room asking if they would like to receive the ashes to begin the fast. I thought it was nice. But, I saw very little reason for it. I also note that it was Ash Wednesday 2001.
The next Ash Wednesday was much more significant. The Ash Wednesday 2002 took place six months after the coordinated terrorist attacks that now are simply called 9/11. I was in my second year of seminary. I went to chapel for the worship. The message the visiting Lutheran minister gave us was oriented to the aftermath of the attacks. Dust was his topic. We remembered the images of the people running away from the cloud of dust, people being covered with the dust, and the absolute fear of death everyone felt. The words used in imposition, “You are merely dust and to dust you shall return,” were sobering. Yes, the second time was much more meaningful. Years later, after several Ash Wednesdays have passed, I am forced to ask what does it continue to mean?
The doctrine known as substitutionary atonement presents a theological stumbling block for many people. One person confided to me, “I can sooner believe the Resurrection occurred than believe Jesus died for my sins.” Why? It’s very simple. Punishing the innocent for the crimes of the guilty is unjust. No, it does not matter the Christ was raised three days later. Murdering him for the sin of everyone in the world including those who murdered him is an injustice. It would not alleviate any “original sin.” In fact, it only makes it and the associated feelings of guilt worse.
The questions remain. What is the significance of the death of Jesus? What is the “propitiation” which St. Paul discusses in Romans 3:25? John gives a curious understanding of the significance of Jesus’ death. Christ lays down his own life. It is not taken from him. Why? He does it for divine love of the world. When St. Paul discusses what happened with Christ’s death he includes the Resurrection. We are reconciled to God by Jesus’ obedience, righteousness, and life. The “sacrifice of atonement” or “the propitiation” as the King James version puts it is actually the place of atonement. Jesus is the Temple. Sin is remembered at the Temple. And reconciliation is made at the Temple. The Temple is where God dwells. But God is greater than the Temple. Prayers are made facing in the direction of the Temple. Why does the Temple exist? Does it exist for God? No, it exists for the people.
Now we are ready to answer the question of why Ash Wednesday. If “Jesus paid it all,” Ash Wednesday is an unnecessary fast. In fact, all fasting would be unnecessary if the sacrifice was punishment that satisfied divine law or honor. Fasting is necessary if we are continually seeking to find the experience of God.
I visited a church one time where I heard the pastor describe God in this way. “Until God sees the blood, either yours or Jesus’, you will not be forgiven.” I told a friend who was a member of that church that I really despised the idea of a bloodthirsty God. Another time I was appalled when I heard that before the end of time the Jerusalem Temple and the sacrifices would be restored. It was still the bloodthirsty God I had heard about before. When a member of a congregation I served made such a claim I told her that such an action being supported by Christians was Anti-Christ. Even if Christ was the substitute why would we support something extra?
Fasting is not meant to satisfy God with suffering. It is meant to remind human beings that we are weak, self-righteous, and in fear of death. For all the bravado and swagger we demonstrate, we are cowardly covering up these characteristics for which we cannot be proud.
Jesus cautions against swearing oaths on glorious stuff. “You blind fools! For which is greater, the gold or the sanctuary that has made the gold sacred? And you say ‘whoever swears by the gift that is on the altar is bound by the oath.’ How blind you are! For which is greater, the gift or the altar that makes the gift sacred? So whoever swears by it and everything on it, and whoever swears by the sanctuary swears by it and by the one who dwells in it.'” (Matthew 23:17-21 NRSV)
There is another caution about the attitude of prayer this time from Luke. “He also told this parable to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous and regarded others with contempt.” (Luke 18:9) The parable is about two men who go to the temple. One man prays thanking God for making him so great, pious, and better than many others including the other man who is praying. The second man asks for God’s mercy. Jesus says the second man is justified by God.
Jesus told us to fast because of the beatitude characteristics we could learn and re-learn. Ash Wednesday, Lent, and Advent are times for every spiritual good we wish we otherwise had time to receive. Fasting is not about punishing ourselves, trying to feel guilty, or even self-loathing. The Lenten fast is about remembering the life work of Jesus was bringing about and teaching life in reconciliation with the divine that is within us and surrounds us.
May all of us look forward to the celebration of Easter, Pascha, or the Resurrection and be ready for it.