2018 Update: I wrote this blog post in 2014 when we were members of an Acts 29 church back in Bellingham, Washington.
Currently, we are in San Diego and now part of an SBC church that does not practice Ash Wednesday collectively. However, our family still acknowledges Ash Wednesday privately in our home. We are re-reading the book mentioned in this blog post and after reading Day 1 this morning, we each shared what we will be fasting from and why.
It’s important to verbally acknowledge why we are giving up a certain “thing”, in order to reflect how our habits, actions, and thought patterns are never empty of meaning. We each then smeared a bit of ash on our hand and I shared with my kiddos the significance of ashes and mourning in the Old Testament. My husband prayed over our family, we washed our hands and went about the rest of our morning. I am simply sharing this experience here for 2 reasons.
1) To encourage others to be creative in implementing a personal family Ash Wednesday/Lent tradition
2) To recognize that there is no right or wrong way to acknowledge, remember, reflect, meditate, repent and be thankful for Christ’s life, death and resurrection.
Just do it.
The link to the book is HERE.
That was the only point of reference I had for any of the traditions of the Catholic religion, which includes Lent.
My mother eventually converted to the Jehovah’s Witness religion and my very Hispanic Catholic baby baptism became of no consequence.
I eventually became exposed to the distant, albeit foreign concept of Lent through the kids in junior high who were Catholic. They would leave school for a few hours on Ash Wednesday only to come back to school with ash crosses on their forehead. It was foreign to me. It was something that other people did. It personally meant nothing to me.
For me, Lent became associated with Catholicism and unfortunately hypocrisy as well.
I attributed all religious church traditions with hypocrisy because the first exposure I had with religious church traditions came primarily from those same junior high and high school kids in the small New Mexico town that I lived in. For the most part, if someone was Mexican, they were Catholic. If someone was not Mexican, they were not Catholic. This experience/exposure did not leave me to conclude anything different.
These Catholic junior and high school kids would bully kids on the school bus, yell at the bus driver, brag about their sexual exploits, etc….yet…..when the bus drove by the Catholic church, all these kids would stop what they were doing, make the sign of the cross by touching their head, their chest, their shoulders, kiss their finger and lift them up in the air and then proceed with their “bad” behavior once the bus passed the church.
I was perplexed. I knew something was amiss.
However limited my exposure was, that was my first experience with ritualism. Traditionalism. Empty church symbolism.
I knew I wanted nothing to do with it.
Lent….or the activity of Lent never crossed my mind again.
Up until now – 8 churches and 30 years later, 14 of those years as a non-Catholic evangelical Christ follower.
Our new church in Bellingham offered an Ash Wednesday service. As foreign as it was to me, I was intrigued. What could this non-Mexican, non-Catholic context service look like? I surely had no preconceived ideas of what it ought to look like. My husband, on the other hand, grew up Catholic, so he did have to wrestle with his personal past experiences on what it used to look like for him as a former altar boy but at the same time, he was pretty stoked about it too.
It was centered around the Holiness of God, our desperate need for a Savior, and an encouraging renewed reminder of a Holy and Loving God sending Jesus to reconcile us to him, our Father. There was singing (which I love), collective reading of the Bible (which I love), and prayer and reflection (which I need).
There was the application of the ash crosses on our foreheads. There was the participation of the Lord’s supper. Then there was the anointing of oil at the very end.
I don’t know what I loved more- the actual service and its passion for God or the fact that we finally had a church to celebrate Jesus with. I might venture to say that it was both.
As a matter of fact, I wish Ash Wednesday was every Wednesday but I guess that would defeat the reverence of the occasion.
Along with the actual service, our church is doing a collective fasting and using a devotional titled Journey to the Cross to help foster a reflective and repentant heart as we usher in the solemn death of Christ and glorious resurrection of our Savior and King.
It is interesting to see the many different viewpoints concerning non-Catholic denominations wrestling with whether we should or should not participate in Lent. After reading several blogs on these various perspectives; it is quite fascinating to see strong the reactions against observing Lent.
To Lent or not to Lent. That is the million dollar question of the day for many evangelical Christ followers. I honestly think the reasons boil down to a personal choice and many Christian’s who object to it, forget Colossians 2:16.
“Therefore let no one pass judgment on you in questions of food and drink, or with regard to a festival or a new moon or a Sabbath.”
A Little Bit of History
Historically Ash Wednesday falls on the first day of Lent, which is the beginning of the forty days before Resurrection Sunday and typically includes a fast of some kind.
In the first three centuries, the period of fasting in preparation for Resurrection Sunday did not normally last more than two or three days, evident from a statement of Irenaeus recorded by Eusebius. The first mention of a period of 40 days of fasting occurs in the Canons of Nicaea.
The custom may have originated in the prescribed fast of candidates for baptism, and the number 40 was evidently suggested by the 40 days’ fasts of Moses, Elijah, and most directly, Christ Himself, though later traditions differed between the Easter and Western Churches. In the Eastern Churches the Lenten Fast was observed during seven weeks and the Western Churches fasted for six weeks. Only in Jerusalem were the actual 40 days observed as early as the 4th century .
Ash Wednesday not just a sentimental allusion to repentance in sackcloth and ashes which the prophets spoke about in the Old Testament. Ash Wednesday refers more to a rite that marks the observance of the day in the church. Interestingly palm-branches blessed on the Palm-Sunday of the previous year are burned to ashes, and these ashes are placed in a vessel on the altar before the beginning of mass.
The New Schaff-Herzog Encyclopedia states:
The priest, wearing a violet cope (the color of mourning), prays that God will send his angel to hallow the ashes, that they may become a salutary remedy to all penitents. Then follows the prayer of benediction, which explains the symbolical meaning of the use of ashes still more clearly. The ashes are then thrice sprinkled with holy water and censed, after which the celebrant kneels and places some of them upon his own head. The congregation then approach the altar and kneel, while the sign of the cross is made upon their foreheads with the blessed ashes; to each one are said the words Memento, homo, quia pulvis es et in pulverem reverteris (“Remember, O man, that dust thou art and unto dust shalt thou return”).
Scholars do not know for sure when the use of ashes began, which was initially a part of public repentance for sinners to exhibit outward behavior for those considered authentic faithful believers.
It is demonstrably at least as old as the Synod of Beneventum in 1091, which expressly commands it for clergy and laity alike. In the Anglican communion, the day is marked by a special service known as the “commination service,” which includes special Scripture lessons.
The commination service was added to Ash Wednesday by the Reformers to take the place of the ceremonial sprinkling of ashes on the congregation in token of repentance and included reciting the curses declared by God against non-repentant sinners in the Old Testament and Psalms 51. 
Taking into account historical references, here are some practical thoughts and applications on how to approach Ash Wednesday and Lent.
1- If you go to a gospel-centered, Bible-believing/Jesus preaching church and your church does not do Lent….then no worries. Don’t do it. Or, if you feel strongly about doing it, then do it privately with your family.
2- If you go to a gospel-centered, Bible-believing/ Jesus preaching church that does do Lent….then do it with your church family.
However…here are some caveats to think about.
1) Participating in Lent doesn’t make us holy. Only Jesus makes us holy.
2) Giving up something for 40 days doesn’t make us more holy. Only Jesus, through the sanctifying work of the Holy Spirit, makes us more holy.
3) Focusing on what we have to give up does not make us more holy. Replacing God’s word with whatever we give up reorients us to God. It assists us to recognize the magnificent finished work of Jesus and the power of the Holy Spirit in our lives. This helps in sanctifying us, aka….making us more holy.
4) Going through the motions of a religious tradition will do nothing for our sanctification if we do not commit to reading scripture, meditating on scripture as it pertains to Christ’s work on the cross, reflecting about our outward AND inward sin and recognizing the depravity of our condition, repenting daily, and most of all praying continually. But…..as Christ-following people, we should be doing this already.