Dr. Sandra Hamer Smith
Ash Wednesday is a time for reflection, repentance, and observance of why Jesus Christ died on the cross. If you grew up attending a church that used liturgy, you may remember that everyone stopped eating meat on Ash Wednesday. You may wonder why people fasted on Ash Wednesday and if that’s normal for all Christians.
What is Ash Wednesday During Lent?
Ash Wednesday is the first day of Lent. Christians observe Ash Wednesday six and a half weeks, or 46 days, before Easter Sunday. During worship services, priests or ministers may place a cross made of ash on parishioners. They often recite the phrase, “remember you are dust and to dust you shall return.”
The ash represents our origin and our return to dust. It puts into perspective our humanity and the need to reconcile with God. In Genesis 3:19, God declared, “In the sweat of thy face shalt thou eat bread, till thou return unto the ground; for out of it was thou taken for dust thou art, and unto dust shalt thou return.
I know it seems odd that we are made of dust. Every time you play a sport or exercise and wipe sweat from your brow, it reminds you that you are made of dust.
Many churches hold special worship services on Ash Wednesday. This is especially prevalent in the Roman Catholic church. On Shrove Tuesday, many Roman Catholic churches burn the palms from a previous Palm Sunday to obtain the ashes for Ash Wednesday. During the fasting on Ash Wednesday, participants abstain from meat and only have one meal that day. Anglican, Lutheran, and some Protestants churches also hold Ash Wednesday services.
Fasting and prayer have been around since the beginning. It was common for men to have sackcloth and ashes on them when they were repenting. In the book of Daniel 9:3, Daniel sets his face unto the Lord God to seek by prayer and supplications, with fasting, sackcloth, and ashes.
When Did Christians Start Observing Ash Wednesday?
Historians date Ash Wednesday as far back as the eleventh century. There are some reports of it starting even earlier. It is said that the Council of Nicaea established a date for Easter around 325 A.D. In the seventh century, four days were added to the Lenten season to establish forty days of fasting, mimicking Jesus’ fast in the desert. It is important for Christians to repent. Ash Wednesday focuses on repentance and asking for forgiveness for our sins.
In the Anglican church, the Book of Common Prayer establishes Ash Wednesday as a day to abstain from particular foods. Ash Wednesday comes after Shrove Tuesday, also known as Fat Tuesday. On Fat Tuesday, people spend their last night of eating rich, fatty foods before the beginning of the Lenten season. Mardi Gras occurs on the same day and is no longer about feasts but costumes, masks, parades, and revelry. New Orleans is known for its Mardi Gras festivals. Tourists congregate in the city to participate, not knowing the event’s religious significance.
Can Christians Eat Meat on Ash Wednesday?
Christians who follow strict religious rules abstain from eating meat on Ash Wednesday. Many others who aren’t religious but recognize the tradition will give up a food item for Ash Wednesday. They may not know the history of Ash Wednesday or adhere to strict religious rules surrounding it, but they appreciate what fasting brings: fasting is a way of drawing closer to God.
It was common for Kings or rulers to declare a fast in Biblical days. Many churches fast for the ills that plague the world, their city, or region. Isaiah 58:6 declares, “Is this the fast that I have chosen? To lose the bands of wickedness, to undo the heavy burdens, and to let the oppressed go free, and that ye break every yoke?
Often, when King David missed the mark, he could be seen fasting before the Lord. He fasted after the Lord sent word that He would give King David’s wives away because he killed Uriah the Hittite and took his wife. God also said that the sword would never depart from David’s house and that his son conceived with Bathsheba would die. David fasted, but God did as He said he would. The child died. God did bless David and Bathsheba with another son. However, David was king, and God wanted him to know that he could not just do anything and not go unpunished.
Ash Wednesday focuses on repentance. Repentance teaches Christians to humble themselves before the hand of a mighty God to obtain grace, mercy, and help in a time of need. True repentance means that you are sorry for what you have done. You are sincere when you come to God. God searches the heart of a man or woman.
In Biblical days, ashes were used to express repentance. It was an act of humbling self to the will of God instead of seeking your own will. God has standards and requires that man will keep his commandments. God says that His commandments are not grievous. As humans, we often miss the mark. Ash Wednesday helps Christians bring things into proper focus and reflect that we are but dust and need God to intervene in our affairs.
God is moved when we admit that we cannot go it alone and need His guidance. He is just like a parent. Children want to be independent because they are tiny adults. When they realize that they need help, they are quick to ask for it. Sometimes, we want to function as if our way is the way, that we do not need help or guidance… until things do not go as planned. The Bible says to acknowledge God in all your ways, and He will direct your path.
When Is Ash Wednesday?
The next Ash Wednesday will be Wednesday, February 22, 2023. Then, Wednesday, February 14, 2024. Other future dates are March 5, 2025, February 18, 2026, and February 10, 2027. Of course, all of those dates are Wednesdays.
Remember Ash Wednesday is a time of repentance. It is one day set aside to abstain from a full meal without meat. Abstinence from particular foods is a means of drawing nearer to God. Some people give up a particular food during the entire Lenten season. Not every Christian celebrates Ash Wednesday. It is a good practice, however, for Christians to fast. Jesus gave us a formula for fasting, found in Matthew 6:6-18. We should not look like we are fasting, and we really should not say that we are fasting. We know that those with heightened discernment might know that people are fasting. Nevertheless, continue with your program.
Jesus says when we fast, we need to anoint ourselves and wash our faces. Do not go around declaring that you are fasting. If possible, you should avoid trying to look hungry. He says His Father, who sees you in secret, will reward you openly. So, if you have never fasted, try adding it to your Christian routine or join in every year during Ash Wednesday and the Lenten season.
There are many benefits of fasting. God takes notice when we are fasting. When we give up food, He knows that we are serious. Fasting provides humility. Fasting should be accompanied by prayer, and we start to develop a closer relationship with God because we are acknowledging that we are dust and need His assistance in this walk called life. Fasting helps to avoid God’s wrath in many cases. We get His mercy when we fast. Fasting also helps to weaken or eliminate demonic activity. People who have never fasted before will often see breakthroughs in certain areas. Fasting should also be accompanied by prayer.