Ash Wednesday and Justice

Today marks a worldwide observance among the majority of Christians, called Ash Wednesday, marking the beginning of the Lenten season that culminates in Easter Sunday. Irenaeus of Lyons was one early Church leader who wrote about the observance of Lent as it existed in the second century. Socrates and many others wrote of the Christian observance in the third century. Although the observance seems to have existed from the beginning of the Church, it became officially recognized in 325, along with standardized recommendations regarding its practice, during a worldwide Church council at Nicaea. It was implemented as a forty-day period of fasting and instruction for those wishing to convert from paganism to Christianity and wishing to be baptized on Easter.

If you’ve ever participated in an Ash Wednesday service or in the observance of Lent, you have likely heard the discussions around items from which individuals may choose to abstain during the 40 days leading up to Easter. The fast is generally observed every day during the period, with a break on Sunday. Originally, the fast was a daytime fast from food – an after-dark meal was permitted. Today, many will choose to give up a single item such as meat, alcohol, television, video games, or dining out.

Regardless of the specific abstention, there is a basic concept about fasting that many do not understand. Fasting is a time to realign ourselves with God’s desire for us – not to ask God to fulfill our desires, but it is also a time for service. While fasting may include more frequent times of prayer and study, those things may be done without having to abstain from foods and entertainment we regularly enjoy. So, what is the point of going without? When it comes to fasting, we find the answer to its purpose and what is acceptable in Isaiah 58:6-7: “Is not this the fasting I have chosen: to loose the chains of injustice and untie the cords of the yoke, to set the oppressed free and break every yoke? Is it not to share your food with the hungry and to provide the poor wanderer with shelter – when you see the naked, to clothe them, and not to turn away from your own flesh and blood?” In addition to the spiritual and mental benefits, the purpose of fasting is to enact justice for and lighten the burden of those who are in need of assistance.

One message that becomes clear in any biblical study is that God is not interested in religious practices when they fail to address the real needs of our fellow humans. Isaiah 58 expresses God’s anger at those who fasted and visibly humbled themselves as part of their worship, but failed to understand that the purpose of their fasting was to give of the excess they would have spent to the poor. It was not just about abstaining from certain foods or forms of enjoyment; it was also about giving the food or money that was saved to those in need. God did not care about their worship services while they were allowing the needs of the poor to go unmet, the immigrants to be mistreated, and the people in their land to be continually oppressed. The Israelites had all the correct religious language and appearance, but none of it mattered to God in the face of the injustice being experienced by their fellow humans – their “own flesh and blood.” Isaiah records that their concern in their worship was solely for their own benefit: “’Why have we fasted,’ they say, ‘and you have not seen it? Why have we humbled ourselves, and you have not noticed?’

Yet on the day of your fasting, you do as you please and exploit all your workers. Your fasting ends in quarreling and strife, and in striking each other with wicked fists. You cannot fast as you do today and expect your voice to be heard on high.”

I grew up in a church tradition that did not observe religious weeks or holidays, but I have grown to love the rich meaning and deep spiritual concepts interwoven in their practice. When they are not observed, it seems like important lessons are lost or forgotten. This evening, Kacie and I will be celebrating Ash Wednesday – in a socially distanced environment, of course – where we have been getting to know people: St. Andrew’s UMC. Maybe it would be a good opportunity for you to do the same, if you have never done so.

Due to the impact of COVID-19, there are many who are suffering right now who could benefit from you or your family giving up a luxury for a few weeks in order to provide assistance to them. The best way we can honor God and to celebrate the grace provided by God to humanity is through extending love to other people – love that results in real action, not sentiment. This is the kind of worship and the kind of fasting scripture tells us that God desires.

Published by David Moscrip

David Moscrip lives in Tampa, Florida with his wife and three children. He writes and produces music, attends Knox Seminary, and leads worship at his church.

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