Let me begin by shedding light on Ash Wednesday, which marks the commencement of the six weeks preceding Easter Sunday known as Lent. This day is primarily observed by Roman Catholics and some Protestant denominations through the practice of marking a cross on their foreheads with ashes. However, while the intentions of these Ash Wednesday participants may seem noble on the surface, this practice is not only unbiblical but also certain aspects of it are explicitly prohibited by the Scriptures.
The purpose of Ash Wednesday is to commence the Lenten season with the ritualistic act of painting a cross on one’s forehead with ashes. This goes against the biblical directive for fasting, as stated in Matthew 6:16-18 (ESV), “And when you fast, do not look gloomy like the hypocrites, for they disfigure their faces that their fasting may be seen by others. Truly, I say to you, they have received their reward. But when you fast, anoint your head and wash your face, that your fasting may not be seen by others but by your Father who is in secret. And your Father who sees in secret will reward you.”
The Scripture is clear that fasting should be a personal and private act that is meant to be kept between the individual and God. The public spectacle made out of the Roman Catholic and mainstream observance of Ash Wednesday is not only an insult to the Scriptures but also a disregard for the true essence of fasting.
It is vital to understand that the attention and accolades received by those who observe Ash Wednesday, practicing their righteousness before men on earth are their only reward, as Jesus himself stated. In Matthew 6:2-4 (ESV), Jesus warned, “Thus, when you give to the needy, sound no trumpet before you, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and in the streets, that they may be praised by others. Truly, I say to you, they have received their reward. But when you give to the needy, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, so that your giving may be in secret. And your Father who sees in secret will reward you.”
Similarly, in Matthew 6:5-6 (ESV), Jesus cautions against the act of praying for the sake of being seen by others, stating, “And when you pray, you must not be like the hypocrites. For they love to stand and pray in the synagogues and at the street corners, that they may be seen by others. Truly, I say to you, they have received their reward. But when you pray, go into your room and shut the door and pray to your Father who is in secret. And your Father who sees in secret will reward you.”
The Pharisees of old would practice their righteousness before men, not out of love for God, but to appear righteous in the eyes of others. Jesus criticized this attitude in Matthew 23:5-7 (ESV), stating, “They do all their deeds to be seen by others. For they make their phylacteries broad and their fringes long and they love the place of honor at feasts and the best seats in the synagogues and greetings in the marketplaces and being called rabbi by others.”
This same practice is evident in the Roman Catholic Church and other denominations and churches that make a habit of this—not just on Ash Wednesday but in the entire practice of works righteousness. The foolish notion is that one can earn favor with God by practicing righteousness before men while disregarding their true love for God, who has revealed himself to us. However, as the Scripture states in Romans 3:28 (ESV), “For we hold that one is justified by faith apart from works of the law.”
While the Scriptures do not strictly prohibit the observance of special days, we should ask what our motivation is for observing such a day. Is it to truly honor God? Or are we doing it to make a spectacle out of honoring God and earning the favor of men? No amount of ritual or sabbath day observance can earn us favor with God. Salvation and righteousness are not based on our works but on our faith in Jesus Christ.
Let us not be led astray by the erroneous practices of Ash Wednesday or any other extra-biblical holiday. Instead, let us seek to align ourselves with the truth of the Scriptures and the righteousness found in Christ alone.