Should I Care About Ash Wednesday?

What is Ash Wednesday or Lent all about? If I am not Catholic, should I even care? Robert Black takes a look at what we can gain from the tradition of Lent.

Should I Care About Ash Wednesday?

“I’m giving up Facebook for lent.” A couple of years back a friend offered this comment in response to someone’s question about what abstinence they were observing for lent. This was followed up by another person stating they were giving up coffee for lent. Comedian Brian Reagan’s goofy punchline, “I walked on the moon” sticks in my mind and pops up whenever someone seems to be attempting a one-up.  

As a believer raised in a relative fundamentalist background, I did not grow up observing lent. Many in my circles considered such observances to be too close to an assumed line of demarcation separating evangelicals from Catholics. Or perhaps the only reason I didn’t know about lent was just a simple issue of preference held by some church father further back in my religious lineage.

So, there I was as a dinner guest faced with a question about a religious tradition I do not observe. Maybe you’ve wrestled with this kind of situation yourself in some other context or regarding some other topic. Is this a new trend? Is there some church tradition I am missing that results from negligence in my upbringing? Am I on the outside of church tradition or am I not living right? What is Lent and why does it matter?

Lent is a 40-day prayer, fasting, and sacrificial giving period that starts on Ash Wednesday and ends at sundown on Holy Thursday. In some circles, Ash Wednesday is preceded by Shrove Tuesday (a bit of indulgence before abstinence). This year, 2023, Ash Wednesday falls on February 22. Some observers of Ash Wednesday receive ashes on their forehead in the shape of a cross. The use of ash as a symbol of mourning or an outward sign of remorse can be found throughout God’s Word  (Esther 4:1; Job 42:6; Daniel 9:3; Jonah 3:5‐6). The use of ash is an outward adornment meant to symbolize our insignificance, we are from dust and we will return soon to dust. Job 42:6 (ESV),“I despise myself and repent in dust and ashes.”

Is this just religious hype or a trend? Should I turn away from what appears to be a trend simply because of its novelty? It is important to exercise discernment. After all, Paul addressed this directly in Ephesians 4:14 ESV, reminding the church to “no longer be children, tossed to and fro by the waves and carried about by every wind of doctrine, by human cunning, by craftiness in deceitful schemes.“

Rather than rejecting something due to its perceived newness, am I challenged to examine my own walk with God? Paul emphasized this point in 2 Corinthians 13:5 (ESV), “Examine yourselves, to see whether you are in the faith. Test yourselves.“ This was in response to questions levied at Paul about the legitimacy of his speaking for Christ as an apostle. He responded that those questioning him should aim those same questions at themselves.

I reflect on the question posed to my friend, what am I going to give up for lent? I may not adorn myself with ashes, or even observe a literal 40-day period of abstinence from something. I will, however, embrace the tradition of reflection and appreciation for the sacrifice Christ made on the cross. I will turn to God’s word to measure what is right, wrong, tradition, or trend.