Ash Wednesday

The first day of Lent

The visible centerpiece of Ash Wednesday is the ceremony of the imposition of ashes as "a sign of our mortality and penitence." This can be a powerful symbol, calling to mind the ancient custom of tearing one's clothes and sitting in ashes as a sign of mourning or penitence. Unfortunately, the custom itself, rather than its meaning has taken center stage in the popular observance of Ash Wednesday, giving rise to what one bishop we know refers to as "A & P Christians." These are not people who testify to their faith from the Atlantic to the Pacific. Rather, they are people who show up for the outward signs (ashes and palms) but otherwise do not exhibit any particular piety. Jesus warns us against this kind of religiosity: "Beware of practicing your piety before men in order to be seen by them.... when you fast, anoint your head and wash your face, that your fasting may not be seen by men but by your Father who is in secret." (Matthew 6:1,17-18) Another bishop of our acquaintance had an acolyte follow him at the imposition of ashes. As soon as the bishop marked the worshiper's forehead with ashes, the acolyte wiped them off, in strict obedience to the Gospel that had just been read.

Imposition of ashesLike Jesus, we think that it is the fast itself, rather than the outward symbol, that is most important. We dutifully receive ashes on this day, but the more important thing we try to do is to fast. The Prayer Book provides many feast days throughout the year. It also has two days which are called "Fasts." The simple definition of fasting, according to Webster, is "to abstain from food." A fast is the opposite of a feast which is "an elaborate meal." The Church also calls on us to practice abstinence. Abstinence is not the same thing as fasting. To abstain is to refrain from particular foods or perhaps to limit the quantity of food eaten. To fast is not to eat at all. Thus, for many years Roman Catholics were required to abstain from meat on Fridays. They could eat almost anything else. They were encouraged to eat less in general on days of abstinence, but only meat was forbidden. But on Fast Days, namely Ash Wednesday and Good Friday, the Church has from the earliest times called on people to fast, to abstain from any food at all for the whole day.

However, the Church has also always recognized that fasting is not appropriate for some people, particularly the very young, the aged, and those who are sick. And here we have a clue to what fasting on Ash Wednesday and Good Friday is really about. Fasting is not about the act itself. Contrary to an oft-heard claim, the point of fasting is not to share in some minor way in the suffering of Christ. It is a symbolic act and the purpose of symbols is to be symbols, to point to a meaning, not to be the meaning. Fasting is a symbol that is potentially injurious physically, thus the vulnerable, particularly the sick and the elderly, are discouraged from fasting. But for those who are able to fast and to "read" the symbol, fasting carries two very potent meanings. First of all, it is part of the whole movement towards simplification at the beginning of Lent, a physical participation in the letting go of the past that is essential to spiritual renewal. In the developed world where most people have enough and, often, more than enough food, and have it in great variety, fasting can be an opportunity to examine one's whole lifestyle, a reminder that we almost certainly have more than we need and an invitation to consider what we could and should live without. And this leads to the second significance of fasting, which is the gift of freedom. Clearly, the things that we could live without are things that we do not need. So we need to ask ourselves how we got them, why we have them, whether life is really better with them, or whether, perhaps, they consume too much energy and resources and desire and we would truly be better off without them--in other words, free. To be free is to be redeemed, and that is what this season we are beginning is all about.

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