Scripture vs. Tradition: Jesus on Fasting and Ashes

It’s always fascinating to compare long-ingrained Church traditions with the words of Jesus.

As I write this post, today is Ash Wednesday. It marks the first day of Lent—a period of fasting leading up until Easter Sunday. It is observed by the Roman Catholic church, as well as a number of Protestant denominations.  The Orthodox church observes 40 days of fasting, although the dates of observance differ slightly.

In most churches, Ash Wednesday is observed with the smearing of ashes in the sign of the cross on congregant’s foreheads. It is meant to be an outward sign of the inner spiritual state of the believer. Apparently, the use of ashes was standard practice in Western Europe by the 10th century and in 1091 it was officially implemented in Rome by Pope Urban II.

Even though most Evangelical Christians don’t observe this, the practice of fasting in repentance and spiritual humbleness before God is very biblical, especially if it is not merely an external formality. Jesus fasted, and He said his disciples would fast when He was no longer with them. (Matthew 9:14-17)

That said, I have to chuckle when I read Jesus’ words about how Christians are to fast—especially in light of Ash Wednesday. In the famous Sermon on the Mount, Jesus said:

Whenever you fast, do not put on a gloomy face as the hypocrites do, for they neglect their appearance so that they will be noticed by men when they are fasting. Truly I say to you, they have their reward in full.

But you, when you fast, anoint your head and wash your face so that your fasting will not be noticed by men, but by your Father who is in secret; and your Father who sees what is done in secret will reward you. (Matthew 6:16-18 NASB)

Jesus instructs us not to look “gloomy” and “neglect” our outward appearance, but rather fast in secret. His instructions, which apply particularly to that culture and time, specifically speak to maintaining a clean and healthy appearance.

Jesus commands his followers to “anoint” their heads. Anointing, although often used in a spiritual sense, simply means to smear with oil. Oil, rather than soap, was often used when cleaning yourself during that time. Oil would be rubbed on the skin, and then scraped off to remove dirt. One could then wash with water.

The point is, people aren’t supposed to know when you are fasting. We aren’t to seek public recognition when we fast.

That brings me back to the tradition of Ash Wednesday. It’s just one of many examples where traditions have become ingrained, despite clear scripture verses which contradict it. Jesus said to wash our faces, not to put dirt on them to let people know we are fasting.

Fortunately, God looks at the heart. If someone is observing Ash Wednesday out of a sincere attitude of repentance, God will honor their obedience. But for those who are proud about their outward sign of piety, Jesus’ words ring quite true.

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