Ash Wednesday Evening Prayer (17 February 2021)
Today is Ash Wednesday. The early Christians did not celebrate this day. In fact, we do not read about Christmas, Ash Wednesday, Maundy Thursday, Good Friday or Easter in the Bible. God the Father asked the Israelites to celebrate a few festivals and we can read about these in Leviticus 23. Jesus Christ did not teach about these celebrations either. He celebrated the Last Supper before His crucifixion. Theologians believe that the king Constantine was in a mission to combine pagans and Christians into a peaceable unit within the Roman kingdom. Although the concept of Ash Wednesday came from non-Christian origin, the early Catholic Church accepted it in 325AD at the council of Nicaea. After this, Christmas, Ash Wednesday, Maundy Thursday, Good Friday and Easter found their place in the church calendar. Christians started celebrating these in the name of Jesus. We celebrate the birth of Jesus in December. Every year, we have a period of Lent that begins with Ash Wednesday when we spend time in self-reflection and prayer. Some people give up something during this period – it may be food, money or a favourite pastime. In our church, we send our accumulated gift to Water Aid. As we know, this period of Lent ends with Good Friday and Resurrection Sunday.
On the other hand, many congregations do not celebrate these days because they are not Biblical. Jesus came to this world to save every one of us from eternal death. Before starting His ministry, Jesus was baptised in river Jordan by John the Baptist. Heaven was opened and the Holy Spirit descended on Him like a dove from heaven. Jesus was anointed by the Holy Spirit and went to the wilderness to fast and pray for 40 days before starting His ministry. There Jesus was tempted by the devil. The first Adam yielded to temptation and committed sin. Sin separated mankind from the presence of God. Jesus overcame the temptations in the wilderness. He gave His life to re-establish the relationship between mankind and the Father Almighty. During Lent, we remember this period of fasting and praying. We give up some of our comforts and reflect on the passion and death of Jesus.
Jesus is our role model. He is the best example for us to follow. We are remembering Jesus’ fasting in the wilderness and sufferings on the cross during these lent days. Jesus fasted and prayed to overcome the temptations and devil. We fast and pray to receive the Holy Spirit’s anointing and to strengthen ourselves to overcome temptation in this life. Following this period, Jesus lived a life witnessing His Father and doing His will. Similarly, we can be witnesses for Jesus. Acts 1:8 says “ye shall receive power, after that the Holy Ghost is come upon you: and ye shall be witnesses unto me both in Jerusalem, and in all Judaea, and in Samaria, and unto the uttermost part of the earth.”
There is a reason and purpose for remembering these days. If we give importance to the purpose of these days, we will be celebrating these days for Jesus. What is important is our attitude while we celebrate these days. When celebrating Christmas, are we celebrating the birth of Jesus or is our focus on the worldly culture of Christmas? During Lent, are we focussed on spending time in prayer and strengthening our relationship with Jesus? Or are we fasting and praying as a routine practice? Are we remembering those less fortunate than us and sharing what we have with them? Or are we saving up for ourselves? With these questions in mind, I would like to meditate on our Old Testament reading from Joel 2 and our New Testament reading the Gospel according to St. Matthew chapter 6.
Let us focus on how our fasting should be. A common understanding about fasting is not eating for a period of time. In Christian practice, we spend our time in the presence of God when fasting. During Old Testament time people rend their garments, put on sackcloth, sat on ashes when they fasted and prayed to God. We have many examples in the Bible. People in Nineveh fasted and cried unto the LORD God for their salvation. King David humbled himself before God when he fasted and prayed. Our Old Testament reading Joel 2:12 says, “rend your heart, and not your garments, and turn unto the Lord your God: for he is gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and of great kindness, and repenteth him of the evil”. In the New Testament, Jesus speaks about fasting and praying. In Matthew 6:16 Jesus said, “Moreover when ye fast, be not, as the hypocrites, of a sad countenance: for they disfigure their faces, that they may appear unto men to fast. Verily I say unto you, They have their reward”.
Isaiah chapter 58 also talks about fasting and praying. When we have fasted and prayed for something and have not received a response from God, we ask if God had seen or noticed. But are we doing as we please and exploit others? Do we end our fast in a quarrel and strike each other? Isaiah 58:4 says “ye shall not fast as ye do this day, to make your voice to be heard on high.” The verse continues to say fasting chosen by God is not to bow down one’s head as a bulrush and to spread sackcloth and ashes under him. Isaiah 58:6&7 tell us about a fasting pleasing in the sight of God: “Is not this the fast that I have chosen? to loose the bands of wickedness, to undo the heavy burdens, and to let the oppressed go free, and that ye break every yoke? Is it not to deal thy bread to the hungry, and that thou bring the poor that are cast out to thy house? when thou seest the naked, that thou cover him; and that thou hide not thyself from thine own flesh?”
Isaiah 58:9 says, “Then shalt thou call, and the Lord shall answer; thou shalt cry, and he shall say, Here I am”. Prayer is a time when we communicate with the LORD Jesus. An effective communication is a two-way communication. Philippians 4:6 says “Be careful for nothing; but in every thing by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known unto God.” Our prayers should be with thanksgiving. It is not a time to pass on our list of needs to God. Micah 7:7 says, “I will look unto the Lord; I will wait for the God of my salvation: my God will hear me.” It is also important to wait upon the LORD God to receive His word. Proverb 4:20 says “My son, attend to my words; incline thine ear unto my sayings.” Our prayers will be meaningful only if we obey what He says to us.
The verses in Joel 2 and Matthew 6 say that our outward appearance is not important. Rending our hearts is more important than rending our clothes or sitting on ashes. Our outward appearance does not need to show that we are fasting and praying. It is a private and personal communication between us and God. When we fast, how is our relationship with our friends, neighbours and relatives? Are we freeing them from the bondage of sin? Are we sharing their burdens? Are we feeding and helping the poor and the needy? Are we praying to God with a thankful heart? Are we listening to God’s response to our prayers? Are we obeying what He tells us? Matthew 6:18 says, “That thou appear not unto men to fast, but unto thy Father which is in secret: and thy Father, which seeth in secret, shall reward thee openly”. When we our fasting and prayer is done in this manner in private, God will reward us openly.
When we begin another Lenten season, let us examine how we are fasting and praying. If we understand the meaning and purpose of these days and celebrate them in a way pleasing in the sight of Jesus, it will be a meaningful celebration. If not, it will be a routine worldly celebration. We acknowledge the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ to bring salvation of human mankind. We are remembering His sacrifice and suffering that freed us from eternal death. It is our choice to make these days meaningful and pleasing in God’s sight.
I pray that we strengthen our relationship with our LORD God, that the comforter Holy Spirit guides us and that our doings are pleasing in the sight of Jesus. Amen.