[Today’s guest post is written by one of my dearest friends and biggest theological influences, Austin Ricketts (pictured above). I’m trying to talk him into letting me post more of his stuff here. We’ll see. I hope you enjoy what he has on tap for us today.]
“Yet even now,” declares the LORD,
“Return to Me with all your heart,
And with fasting, weeping and mourning;
And rend your heart and not your garments.”
Now return to the LORD your God,
For He is gracious and compassionate,
Slow to anger, abounding in lovingkindness
And relenting of evil.
For many (probably most) Protestants in America, Ash Wednesday is just a silly Catholic ritual. I would rather not start a debate about the historical fact that, without the silly Catholic ritual of the Eucharist or the silly Catholic ritual of Baptism, Protestants would not have the Bible that they have, nor the orthodox doctrines of the Trinity and Christ.
Rituals are not silly. The book of Leviticus is full of rituals that were commanded by God. It is true that King David, later in Israel’s history, says, “You do not delight in sacrifice, otherwise I would give it; you are not pleased with burnt offering. The sacrifices ofGod are a broken spirit; a broken and a contrite heart, O God, you will not despise”.*
This did not at all eliminate the sacrificial rites prescribed by God, though. The Psalmist goes on to say, “By your favor do good to Zion; build the walls of Jerusalem. Then you will delight in sacrifices of righteousness, in burnt offering and whole burnt offering; the young bulls will be offered on your altar”.*
It is the person’s heartthat is at issue. A sacrifice offered, without true repentance, is worthless. Trusting in rituals while neglecting the God who gives them is the height of pride, and rather an attempt to control God.
Rituals aren’t silly, but ritualism is folly.
When Jesus, the Son of David, enters the scene, He chastises those who break the Lord’s commandments by following the traditions of men (Mark 7:5-13). But that’s just it: the traditions in question were those opposed to the Word of God. Saint Paul, elsewhere, tells us to hold fast to the traditions that he has passed on (1 Cor. 11:2; 2 Thess. 2:15).
Again, traditions aren’t silly; traditionalism is folly.
Fasting is part and parcel of the biblical story, the biblical tradition. It is typically done at times of mourning and sorrow—at funerals, or when death seems imminent (Esther 4:3). Fasting reminds us that not all is well with the world; that a shadow yet looms over us. It’s no mystery, then, that ashes often went with fasting, as the passage from Esther shows: “with fasting, weeping and wailing; and many lay on sackcloth and ashes.” The shadow falls tangibly on the body.
This is not a recipe for doom and gloom. There is a purpose for living a while in the shadow. It has a time. And it has a time, because there is another time to come. There will be a time for Feasting, a time when the Light rises to keep the shadow in its place.
Lent looks forward to Easter, and that is the reason for its being.
We see glimpses of the putting away of a fast for the fact that Jesus is present. “You cannot make the sons of the bridal chamber fast while the bridegroom is with them, can you?”.* Jesus, the bridegroom, was with his disciples; the savior was present—that’s call for a Feast.
Of course, He knew that the current state of affairs would not last. The shadow of the Cross still loomed. “Days will come; and when the bridegroom is taken away from them, then they will fast in those days”.*
The Cross did come, as did the glorious Resurrection. But Jesus ascended, putting us in a time between the times, giving us to wait for His return. We still reside in the shadow land, praying that the will of the Father be done on earth as it is in heaven. There is still time to fast.
The wisdom of a great many Christians throughout the ages has set the time of Lent to be a universal fast, a time when all Christians can join together, recognizing that evil still exists, even especially in their own hearts. And they pray, looking forward to Easter as the sign that God has and will make all things well.
As a Lutheran, I won’t berate anyone for not joining in the fast. As the Augsburg Confession says,
very many traditions are kept on our part, which conduce to good order in the Church, as the Order of Lessons in the Mass and the chief holy-days. But, at the same time, men are warned that such observances do not justify before God, and that in such things it should not be made sin if they be omitted without offense.
Though I would have liked to have done my usual Ash Wednesday routine, I actually didn’t attend a service this year, because I’ve been feeling ill, and I felt that my illness was ash enough for the day.
But, I will be fasting for Lent. And like I said, I won’t berate you for not joining in, but I’d encourage you to consider it, and that it might be wise if you did.
Happy Mournful Lent.
How are you fasting this Lenten season?