Why We Observe Ash Wednesday

“Turn away from sin and be faithful to the Gospel” (Mark 1:15)

From my knowledge, SPCC did not observe Ash Wednesday prior to me being the pastor. So, when I initiated the observance in 2008, a few were curious, as they had not grown up with Ash Wednesday much like I had not.

For many evangelicals, Ash Wednesday reminds them of what Catholics do. And that is not said as a compliment, as if Catholics can’t do anything well. (This critique, however, is typically harshest from “ex-Catholics.”)

Though certainly Ash Wednesday originates with the Catholic Church — as do Sunday worship, the doctrine of the Trinity, the Nicene Creed, Be Thou My Vision, monogamous marriage, and many other important practices, hymns, and doctrines we would never dispute as problematic — it is certainly not “merely Catholic.” Most historic Protestant denominations observe Ash Wednesday, such as, Lutherans, Episcopalians, Methodists, and Presbyterians.

(If you want more history on Ash Wednesday, read this article or even this one.)

We are not a part of these denominations, however. So, why have I had us observe Ash Wednesday (and Lent) the past several years?

The short answer is because we need a day like Ash Wednesday. We need a day that forces us to examine ourselves before God. We need a day that forces us to remember that we are dearly loved creations of God, but nothing more. We are not gods. We are made, created, and given life by the Maker, Creator, and Giver of Life. We need a day to hear God say, “Remember, O man, that you are dust, and unto dust you shall return” (Genesis 3:19). This is why we have ashes smudged onto our foreheads. We need it.

But more than some vague state of humility before some vague god, Ash Wednesday is about Jesus. It’s about preparing ourselves to repsond to Jesus rightly. Before Jesus entered the scene, John the Baptist was preparing the way shouting, “Repent!” The best way to prepare ourselves to see Jesus clearly is to repent.

Ash Wednesday is a day that marks the beginning of a season of preparation. In the early (i.e., Catholic) church, it was a time for baptism candidates to prepare for baptism. Today, it is for all of us to prepare for Easter. It is a day in which we look forward to the beauty and glory of Jesus’ resurrection and then look at ourselves, confess our mortality, and remember the new life we’ve been given by, in, and through Christ.

Joel 2:13 says, “Tear your hearts, not your clothes. Return to the LORD your God. He is merciful and compassionate, patient, and always ready to forgive and to change his plans about disaster.” And thank God he has changed his plans about disaster, for he has sent his son, Jesus our Lord and Savior, to call us sinners home.

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One Comment to “Why We Observe Ash Wednesday”

  1. Corinne Bergmann Says:

    If I didn’t have to be in class that night, I’d definitely be there. I did grow up with Ash Wednesday every year in the Presbyterian tradition and I think it’s an important time of preparation for us as we begin to walk alongside Jesus in the direction of the cross. For me anyway, without that time of sober reflection– not just Ash Wednesday but the whole Lenten season- focusing on our brokenness and our need for salvation, Easter just doesn’t hit home in the same way. We need to be reminded of our need for grace and our dependence on the mercy of God for us to really appreciate what God has done for us in the cross and then in the resurrection of Christ. So I’ll be with you there in spirit and will be attending Fuller chapel’s Ash Wednesday service that morning. Thanks for the thoughts, Stephen.

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