Ash Wednesday: Lent begins.

by K.W. Leslie, 22 February

Ash Wednesday gets its name from the western custom of putting ashes on our heads to mark the first day of the Easter-season Lenten fast. What’s with the ashes? It comes from bible: When ancient middle easterners grieved, they put ashes on their heads. 2Sa 13.19, Jb 2.8 Ashes were also used to ritually purify sinners. Nu 19.9 So it’s to repeat that custom.

Thing is… in his Sermon on the Mount, Jesus tells us when we’re fasting not to broadcast it.

Matthew 6.16-18 NRSVue
16 “And whenever you fast, do not look somber, like the hypocrites, for they mark their faces to show others that they are fasting. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward. 17 But when you fast, put oil on your head and wash your face, 18 so that your fasting may be seen not by others but by your Father who is in secret, and your Father who sees in secret will reward you.”

In many churches ashes are ritually sprinkled on one’s head, but in English-speaking countries the custom is to use the ashes to draw a cross on Christians’ foreheads. I don’t know how pleased Jesus is with those of us who wear these crosses on our foreheads all day. I think he’d much rather we show off our devotion by being fruity.

But over the past decade, mainline Christians have started to use the forehead-cross thingy as an outreach tool: Instead of only doing the ritual at their churches, their pastors go to public places with ashes, and draw crosses on anyone who asks. Sometimes they’re Christians who go, “Oh I forgot it’s Ash Wednesday; I’m gonna go get my ashes.” Sometimes they’re Christians who didn’t grow up with this ritual: “Ash Wednesday? What’s that? Well I’m Christian, so I’m gonna get a cross too.” Sometimes they’re Christian jerks: “Oh that’s a Catholic thing; that’s as good as paganism or sorcery; I’m not doing that.” And sometimes they’re pagans who think they’re Christian, or pagans who wanna try something “spiritual.”

Regardless, the mainliners’ goal is to get more people to think about Jesus than usual. It does do that.

As for those who claim this is a Catholic thing: The Easter-season Lenten fast predates Roman Catholics by centuries. In the year 325, the first council of Nicea made reference to a 40-day fast before Easter. They didn’t spell out the details of how they observed it, but the τεσσαρκοστή/tessarkostí, “fortieth” fast day before Easter, is when it starts. That’d be Ash Wednesday.

Ancient custom was to go without food till sundown for each of the fast days. (Skipping one day a week, ’cause you don’t fast on Sabbath.) Among eastern Christians this evolved into a 40-day fast till Holy Week—so they started last week, on Clean Monday. Among western Christians it’s just Ash Wednesday to Easter.

That said, there’s nothing wrong with going to church and getting a cross marked on you. Rituals can be good reminders to be devout… so long that we don’t practice the rituals instead of being devout.