Tuesday, March 8, 2011

An Ashless Ash Wednesday for Anglicans

In the sixteenth century the English Reformers abolished the imposition of ashes on the heads of parishioners on Ash Wednesday due to the superstitious beliefs that had become associated with the practice. The practice was too closely tied the Medieval doctrines of attrition, auricular confession, contrition, priestly absolution, and penance.

The imposition of ashes was not reintroduced into the Church of England and her daughter churches until the nineteenth century and then by the Ritualists. It was one of the errors in doctrine, practice, and ritual that the Romeward Movement revived to make the Anglican Church more like the Roman Catholic Church in the hopes that they would help to affect a reunion between the Church of England and the Church of Rome.

The 1979 Book of Common Prayer popularized the practice in the Episcopal Church in the closing decades of the twentieth century.

The following articles on Ashes, Ash Wednesday, Fasting, and Lent are taken from A Protestant Dictionary, which was published under the auspices of the Protestant Reformation Society in 1904, and was compiled for Evangelicals in the Church of England and the Church of Ireland.

ASHES. Used for sprinkling persons by the Romish Church. Before use, the ashes are dedicated previously by a special prayer offered by a bishop. In that prayer, invocation is made to God "that whosoever shall sprinkle themselves with these ashes for the redemption of their sins may obtain health of body and protection of soul."

ASH-WEDNESDAY. A mediaeval title given to the first day of Lent. It had formerly two names: (1) "Caput jejunii," the "head of the fast," and (2) "Dies cinerum." The forty days of Lent, being appointed in memory of our Lord s fast in the wilderness as a season of abstinence, date from the Wednesday of the first week, because it was never the custom to fast on Sundays, and in this way the full number of forty is made up. The name of "Ash-Wednesday" was given in reference to an ancient discipline, described by Gratian, according to which penitents had to appear before the Bishop and Clergy clothed in sack cloth. The seven penitential Psalms were then sung, after which ashes were thrown upon them, and they covered their heads with sackcloth. The Church of England, however, has in no way retained or sanctioned those superstitions. By the Scriptures appointed to be read and the prayers to be used, she has rather exhibited the true ideal of a fast. The old title of Ash-Wednesday is only employed as an alternative for the " first day of Lent," because before the Reformation it was "commonly so called." The revival of such practices is therefore entirely foreign to her prescribed ritual and is illegal.

FASTING. There is no command to fast in the New Testament. In the Sermon on the Mount our Lord, speaking to Jews who were then accustomed to fast, says : "When thou fastest, anoint thine head and wash thy face ; 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 (Matt. vi. 17, 18). Under the Old Testament there was but one fast distinctly enjoined namely, "the fast" on the great day of atonement (Lev. xvi. 29-31), which is referred to in Acts xxvii. 9. Other fasts were, however, enjoined on special occasions by the direction of the civil or religious authorities (e.g. Jer, xxxvi. 9). After the destruction of the Jewish State fasts became more numerous (Zech. vii. 5). But when the Lord was inquired of concerning those fasts, the answer given by the prophet Zechariah showed that those fasts were neither enjoined nor forbidden, and that persons were at liberty to make use of such days or not, according as they found fasting beneficial or otherwise to themselves; such acts not being regarded as in themselves meritorious in the sight of God (Zech. vii. 5/.). The Lord, by the mouth of Isaiah (ch. Iviii. 5-7), asks, " Is it such a fast that I have chosen ? a day for a man to afflict his soul ? is it to bow down his head as a bulrush, and to spread sackcloth and ashes under him ? wilt thou call this a fast, and an acceptable day to the Lord ? Is not this the fast that I have chosen ? to loose the bands of wickedness ; to undo the heavy burdens? . . . 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 ? "

Our Lord' s teaching concerning the times most suitable for fasting is set forth in the following passage : " Can the children of the bride-chamber mourn, as long as the bride groom is with them ? but the days will come, wen the bridegroom shall be taken from them, and then shall they fast" (Matt. ix. 15), which passage has been explained by the Church of England in her Homily of Fasting, Part II., as follows: "Ye shall note, that so long as God revealeth His mercy unto us, and giveth us of His benefits, either spiritual or corporal, we are said to be with the Bridegroom at the marriage. . . . But the marriage is said then to be ended, and the Bridegroom to be gone, when Almighty God smiteth us with affliction, and seenieth to leave us in the midst of a number of adversities. So God sometimes striketh private men privately with sundry adversities, as trouble of mind, loss of friends, loss of goods, long and dangerous sicknesses, & c. Then it is a fit time for that man to humble himself to Almighty God by fasting, and to mourn and bewail his sins with a sorrowful heart. . . . Again, when God shall afflict a whole region or country with wars, with famine, with pestilence . . . and such other calamities, then is it time for all states and sorts of people . . . to humble themselves by fasting, and bewail their sinful living before God."

The principle here laid down can be exemplified from Scripture histories. David fasted when his child was sick (2 Sam. xii. 16) ; Esther, with her maidens, fasted ere she went in to Ahasuerus (Esth. iv. 16) ; Ezra fasted at the river of Ahava (Ezra viii. 21); Daniel set himself to seek the Lord by prayer and fasting (Dan. ix. 3). Christ said of certain demons, "This kind can come forth by nothing but by prayer and fasting" (Mark ix. 29), but the oldest MSS. omit the words "and fasting." (See R.V. and marginal note on Matt. xvii. 21.) And prior to the solemn ordination of elders, Paul and Barnabas "prayed with fasting" (Acts xiv. 23).

Our Lord Himself fasted forty days and forty nights, but during that time He did not experience the pangs of hunger. The Gospels which record the Temptation, all call attention to that fact. St. Matthew says, " He was afterward an hungered " (Matt. iv. 2). St. Mark does not mention the fasting (Mark i. 12, 13). St. Luke says of those days, "And when they were ended, He afterward hungered." The forty days appear, therefore, to have been spent in rapt ecstasy and contemplation. The actual temptation occurred at the close of that period.

Fasting, therefore, appears to be of value only when employed for the purpose of giving oneself up to continuous prayer, while abstinence from special kinds of food is nowhere enjoined or recommended in Scripture, although Daniel, in his penitential sorrow of three weeks, abstained from all pleasant food (Dan. x. 2, 3). St. Paul alludes to the "commanding to abstain from meats" as a mark of the apostasy (1 Tim. iv. 3), and a sign of weak faith in persons who attached importance to such trifling matters. " The kingdom of God is not meat and drink, but righteousness and peace, and joy in the Holy Ghost " (Rom. xiv. 17, and the whole of that chapter). In fine, when fasting is employed in order to be able to spend the time in prayer, it may be recommended ; but abstinence from food as a means of punishing the body and laying up " merit " is to be strongly condemned. An abstinence from certain food may be useful for "bodily exercise" or discipline "bodily exercise profiteth a little," or "for a little while " (1 Tim. iv. 8) such exercise has occasionally been useful, but is not to be regarded as really a spiritual work.

The prohibition to eat meat on fast days, prescribed by the statute 2 & 3 Edward VI., c. 19, which may be alluded to in " the Tables and Rules " attached to the Book of Common Prayer which mentions " the Fasts, and Days of Abstinence to be observed in the year," is further dwelt on in the Homily on Fasting, Part II., which states that the statute of Edward VI. referred to, was framed for political reasons. It was " in consideration of the maintaining of fisher-towns bordering upon the seas, and for the increase of fishermen, of whom do spring mariners to go upon the sea, to the furnishing of the navy of the realm. . . . Such laws of princes and other magistrates are not made to put holiness in one kind of meat and drink more than another, to make one day more holy than another, but are grounded merely upon policy," namely, as afterwards explained, for the increase and support of the English navy, and "for the sooner reducing of victuals to a more moderate price, to the better sustenance of the poor." [C. H. H. W.]

LENT. The word is derived either from the A.S. lencten (spring), or from the Dutch lenten (to make mild), the severity of winter being then relaxed. Lent is a period of forty days in the spring, immediately before Easter, prescribed as a time of fasting. The Greek and Latin names for Lent simply indicate the number of its days. Lent is asserted to have been of early, and even of Apostolic origin, but, had the latter been the case, some allusion would have been made to it in the New Testament. But in the New Testament there is no fast prescribed, nor even a positive exhortation to fasting (see FASTING). Our Lord s declaration in the A.V. concerning the boy possessed with an unclean spirit, is often quoted that "this kind can come forth by nothing, but by prayer and fasting" (Matt. xvii. 21; Mark ix. 29). All the best MSS., however, omit the entire verse in the account in St. Matthew, and the word " fasting " in that of St. Mark (see R.Y.). The same omission is made by the R.V. on MS. authority with regard to the word "fasting" in two other verses, viz., Acts x. 30 ; 1 Cor. vii. 5. That the oldest MSS. should agree in omitting all reference to fasting in four passages in the New Testament, where fasting was supposed to be mentioned, is highly suggestive of interpolations made in the sacred text to suit the ideas of a non-Apostolic Age.

The forty days of Lent are often said to have been instituted as a fast in memory of our Lord's "fast" of a similar period in the wilderness. But the Lord passed that period in a state of exalted spiritual meditation or ecstasy, for St. Matthew distinctly states that Christ s hunger was subsequent to the forty days, "When he had fasted forty days and forty nights, he was afterward an hungred" (Matt. iv. 2). Lent had originally no real connection with the forty days fast in the desert. Lent seems to have been first established by a Pope, about A.D. 130, to be a tithe of the year (thirty-six days only), and was for centuries confined to that period. When the additional four days were added is not certain, probably not till the time of Pope Gregory II., who died in 731.

Our Lord, in Matt. ix. 15, indicated that the providential circumstances of life were the true guide as to seasons of fasting. Cassian, a disciple of Chrysostom in the fifth century, contrasting the Primitive Church with that of his own day, said, " It ought to be known that the observance of the forty days had no existence so long as the perfection of that Primitive Church remained inviolate." Lent helped in later times to increase the power of the priests. For in the Roman and Eastern Churches dispensations which permit the eat ing of meat on fast days may be obtained for a money payment, and fines are levied on those who break the Church law by eating meat on such days without a dispensation. See FASTING. [M. E. W. J.]

To read An Homily of Good Works: and First of Fasting, click here.

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