Ash Wednesday Homily
The History of Ash Wednesday
According to the gospels, our Lord Jesus died on a Friday, the day after Passover. The Jewish Passover was eaten on the evening of the 15th day of the Jewish month of Nisan. This date falls in the month of March or April in our calendar. This makes it possible for us to know approximately what time of year Jesus was crucified and raised.
From the very beginning of the life of the church, the death and resurrection of Jesus was keyed to the Jewish festival of Passover. In the early Jerusalem church it’s hard to imagine that when the annual Passover festival rolled around, Jewish Christians wouldn’t have contemplated the momentous events that occurred at that time. It wouldn’t be hard to imagine that they might have visited Golgotha and the nearby empty tomb of Jesus. Can you imagine that they would have ignored those places—especially during Passover season?
It’s just possible that an annual early Christian observance of the death of Jesus and celebration of his resurrection might be alluded to by the apostle Paul in 1 Corinthians 5:7-8.
Regardless, of exactly what Paul meant by the words, “let us celebrate the festival,” in 1 Corinthians, Christian celebration of Easter began very early; prior to A.D. 150., because around A.D. 155, St. Polycarp visited the Roman church and visited with St. Anicetus, bishop of the church in Rome.
From this account, we not only learn that the church throughout the Mediterranean world had long been celebrating Easter, but we also learn that by then it had become customary to observe a fast that would be broken on Easter morning. Apparently, based on a statement from St. Irenaeus in the late second century, this pre-Easter fast didn’t last but two or three days. But by the fourth century, some Christians were influenced by the example of Jesus to extend this fast to forty days.
Eventually, the beginning of the fast was set on the Wednesday seven and one half weeks prior to Easter. By setting Ash Wednesday thus, there would still be forty days for fasting prior to Easter even when Sundays are excluded. Because Sunday is the Lord’s Day, the celebration of his resurrection, Christians have never felt that it was appropriate to fast on that day. Because these seven and a half weeks always fall in the spring, English Christians began to call this season Lent, since “Lent” was an old English word meaning “spring.”
This year Ash Wednesday falls on March 5. Seven weeks, we’ll observe Good Friday, and in seven and a half weeks we’ll rejoice over the empty tomb and the Living Lord. Lent is a time to prepare our souls to follow Christ through the final and holiest week of his life on earth—a week that comes to a grand crescendo in his mighty triumph over sin, death, and decay.
The Significance of Fasting
Lent is often associated with fasting. Over the two thousand years of Christian history Christians have found many different methods of fasting: Some eat no food from sun up till sundown on special days, such as Ash Wednesday, Good Friday, and Holy Saturday. Others choose to give up certain types of food or drink, such as meat or drinks other than water.
Fasting has to play some role in a Christian life that takes its bearings from the Bible. In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus didn’t say, “If you fast . . . ,” but “When you fast.” Fasting can help us in various ways in addition to preventing us from ingesting too many calories. Fasting reminds us of how much we depend upon the God who graciously provides our food. Fasting reminds us of how much we depend upon food for joy and contentment. Fasting sensitizes us to the needs of millions of hungry people on our planet. Fasting gives us extra time to spend in prayer, in reading God’s Word, and in tending to the needs of others.
Fasting and prayer go together like love and marriage. Nothing has the power to bless you, bless others, and enrich your fellowship with the Father, Son, and Spirit more than focused, purposeful prayer. Pray especially that God will show you the habits, the practices, and the attitudes that you need to change. Pray that God will show you what you need to be doing. Pray that you might simply bask in the loving presence of Christ the Good Shepherd. Formulate a plan for prayer. Good intentions are usually fruitless unless we have a plan for action. Will you commit to doing something as simple as saying a prayer of thanks and commitment when you first rise each morning? Perhaps you could plan to pray during the time when you would normally eat a meal? The possibilities are endless. Let’s work toward the Pauline ideal, “Pray without ceasing.”
The pre-Easter Fast is also a wonderful time for self-examination, confession of our sin, and expressing our contrition and brokenness to God (and perhaps to others when it’s appropriate). Praise God for his grace and mercy, but let’s never use God’s compassion as an excuse for blithely overlooking or tolerating sin in our lives. One day we’ll arrive, but it hasn’t happened yet. Can we fully praise God for the gift of forgiveness and his perpetual presence until we realize how much he has to overlook? Either literally or figuratively, let us fall to our kneels and express true sorrow for all that we are that God can’t abide. Let us request the power of his Spirit to support our will so that we can act as we really want to act.
No weekend in the annals of history can begin to compare to the importance of Good Friday, Holy Saturday, and Easter Sunday. The events of those days changed the world and our lives in the process. Is it fitting that we acknowledge, mark, and celebrate these days? And isn’t it worthwhile that we prepare ourselves, consecrate ourselves, and sanctify ourselves so that we might more fittingly worship and draw near to him during these days? Surely the answer is a resounding “yes.”
Let us remember that we are dust, and to dust we shall return. Let us contemplate our mortality, our sin, and the gaping distance between who we are and who God intends us to be. And finally, let us draw near to the Merciful One who delights in forgiving the contrite and transforming them into his image.
Barry Blackburn, Sr., Ph.D.
Professor of New Testament