Are the Ashes of “Ash Wednesday” Contrary to Scripture?

Every Lent I get this question: Matt. 6:16-18, Jesus said:

And when you fast, do not look dismal, like the hypocrites, for they disfigure their faces that their fasting may be seen by men. 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 men but by your Father who is in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you.

“Why in the world would you Catholics directly contradict Jesus’ words by putting ashes on your foreheads on Ash Wednesday?”

The Catholic Answer

The Sermon on the Mount has several verses that are similarly taken out of context to make them seem to contradict Catholic belief and practice. In a blog post back on July 25, 2014, I pointed out how Matt. 7:1 is misused from this same Sermon on the Mount: “Judge not lest you be judged.” I argued this may well be the most misunderstood verse in all of Sacred Scripture. Well, then in my last blog post, I argued that  the “turn the other cheek” passage from Matthew 5:39 is unfortunately not far behind and misunderstood today by large numbers of both Christians and non-Christians alike.

Well, in the words of Ronald Reagan, “There you go again.” Matthew 6:16-18, while not as common as the other two, is yet another example of parts of the Sermon on the Mount being taken out of context.

A Little Review

As I’ve said before, the truth is, Jesus was using a common rabbinical teaching tool known as “hyperbole” in order to accentuate an important point. He did not intend that line to be taken in a strict, literal, and absolute sense. In fact, Jesus uses hyperbole throughout the Sermon on the Mount as well as at other times in the Gospels. For some reason, the “judge not,” “turn the other cheek,” and “fast and pray in secret” passages get an inordinate amount of air-time. But again, let me list here some other examples that are not as well known:

1. If your right eye causes you to sin, pluck it out and throw it away… (5:29)

Do we really think Jesus wants us to pluck out our eyes and throw them away? No! He is speaking hyperbolic to emphasize the fact that we must eliminate all obstacles to serving God.

2. … if your right hand causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away… (5:30)

Is anyone out on the stump encouraging folks to cut off hands in the name of Jesus?

3. But I say to you, Do not swear at all… Let what you say be simply “Yes” or “No”… (5:34-37)

Jesus himself honored the oath the High Priest placed him under in Matt. 26:63: “I adjure thee by the living God, tell us if you are the Christ, the Son of God” (in Leviticus 5:1, we have a reference to the “oath of adjuration” where the High Priest is revealed to have the authority to place someone under an oath to testify). If Jesus taught oaths to be unlawful or immoral, he would not have responded or he would have protested and made clear that he did not agree with the concept of oaths.

St. Paul swore oaths, or at least did not present everything as a simple “yes” or “no” as Jesus said in Matt. 5:37, in multiple places in the New Testament (see Phil. 1:8; II Cor. 1:23; 11:31; 12:19; Gal. 1:20). Jesus’ actual meaning was that oaths should not be necessary among the faithful because we should be known for our honesty; however, because of the evil that exists in the world oaths are very necessary. But you don’t get this from the actual words of Matt. 5. At least not overtly.

4. … if any one would sue you and take your coat, let him have your cloak as well… (5:40)
5. Give to him who begs from you, and do not refuse him who would borrow from you (5:42).

Do we really believe Jesus meant we have to loan or give money to anyone and everyone who asks us? And if someone sues us, do we really have to capitulate and then give him more than he even asked for? All Christians would be broke and unable to raise families! No! He uses hyperbole in teaching Christians should be known for their generosity.

6. … when you give alms do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, so that your alms may be in secret… (6:3-4)

Did Jesus really mean no one should ever know what we give? Then why would Jesus have commended the poor widow who gave the now famous “widow’s mite” in Mark 12:42-43? Or, why would the apostles have had a very public display of giving in Acts 5 when Ananias and Saphira were condemned for lying about how much they actually gave? This implies that everyone knew what each was giving!

The truth is, Christ was emphasizing that we should give for love of God and neighbor’s sake, not to be seen of men as a matter of pride.

7. This one is very closely related to Jesus’ admonition against “public fasting.” This time, it’s public prayer.

… when you pray, go into your room and shut the door and pray to your Father who is in secret… (6:6)

Did Jesus really condemn praying in public here? If so, he would have been condemning himself! He prayed publicly in the Garden of Gethsemane (See Mark 14:36); he prayed publicly when he raised Lazarus from the dead in John 11:41-43. The apostles often prayed in public (see Acts 1:24; 4:31; 6:6; 20:36, etc.).

Jesus was here using hyperbole to emphasize that prayer should never be a performance to be seen by men.

8. Do not lay up treasures for yourselves on earth, where moth and rust consume and where thieves break in and steal, but lay up for yourselves treasure in heaven… (6:19-20)

Do we really believe that Jesus condemned banks and bank accounts here? This would hardly square with Jesus’ “Parable of the Talents,” in Matt. 25:27: “Then you ought to have invested my money with the bankers, and at my coming I should have received what was my own with interest.”

9. … do not be anxious about your life, what you shall eat, or what you shall drink… Look at the birds of the air: they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not of more value than they (6:25-26)?

10. And why are you anxious about clothing? Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow; they neither toil nor spin; yet I tell you, even Solomon in all his glory was not clothed like one of these… will [God] not much more clothe you, O you of little faith (6:28-30)?

If we are going to argue that “turn the other cheek,” “judge not,” or now, “fast in secret,” must be taken in a strict, literal, and absolute sense, then it would seem we would also have to say Jesus is condemning farms, farming, or even planting seeds to grow food in these verses. After all, the birds don’t do that and God takes care of them!

Jesus would also be condemning the making of clothing. I suppose we should all remain naked and wait for God to clothe us, right?

The Secret Fast

Obviously, those that take 6:16-18 to mean Jesus condemns any public fasting are making the same mistake. Jesus himself fasted publicly in Matt. 4:1-2:

Then Jesus was led up by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil. And he fasted forty days and forty nights…

He had to tell someone about this in order for the Apostles to know about it. It is recorded in both Matt 4 and Luke 4. This was a public fast!

Jesus is operating in the mode of the prophet like we see in Isaiah 58:3-6, when the prophet Isaiah declares:

Why have we  fasted, and thou seest it not? Why have we humbled ourselves, and thou takest no knowledge of it?’ Behold, in the day of your  fast you seek your own pleasure, and oppress all your workers. Behold, you  fast only to quarrel and to fight and to hit with wicked fist. Fasting like yours this day will not make your voice to be heard on high. Is such the  fast that I choose, a day for a man to humble himself? Is it to bow down his head like a rush, and to spread sackcloth and ashes under him? Will you call this a  fast, and a day acceptable to the LORD? Is not this the  fast that I choose: to loose the bonds of wickedness, to undo the thongs of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free, and to break every yoke?

Is Isaiah here condemning the notion of fasting with ashes? It may seem so with a surface reading just as a surface reading of Jesus may appear to condemn the use of ashes as well. But this is obviously not so because God himself would later say through the Prophet, Jeremiah:

Thus says the LORD… O daughter of my people, gird on sackcloth, and roll in ashes;  make mourning as for an only son, most bitter lamentation; for suddenly the destroyer will come upon us (Jer. 6:22-26).

The Prophet Daniel’s prayers with “fasting… sackcloth, and ashes” resulted in God granting him grace and favor.  God seemed to be just fine with prayer in sackcloth and ashes:

Then I turned my face to the Lord God, seeking him by prayer and supplications with fasting and sackcloth and ashes… While I was speaking and praying, confessing my sin and the sin of my people Israel, and presenting my supplication before the LORD my God for the holy hill of my God; while I was speaking in prayer, the man Gabriel, whom I had seen in the vision at the first, came to me in swift flight at the time of the evening sacrifice. He came and he said to me, “O Daniel, I have now come out to give you wisdom and understanding. At the beginning of your supplications a word went forth, and I have come to tell it to you, for you are greatly beloved; therefore consider the word and understand the vision (Daniel 9:3-23).

There is nothing wrong with using a public fast that includes ashes. What is wrong is doing these things simply to be seen by men. That is what Jesus condemns. If you liked this, and would like to learn more, click here.