There are six ways that Ash Wednesday is like Christmas.
1) Both are days of religious observance;
2) Both have a secular counterpart;
3) Both are rooted in scripture, but neither is named;
4) Both have been wrongly labeled as “just for Catholics;”
5) Both are a response to the sorrow of humanity;
6) UCP invites you to join us for each of these holy days.
Did any of the above surprise you? Let’s take a deeper look.
Both are days of religious observance.
I’ll start with Christmas because it is better known, at least to most of us. However, Christmas is not celebrated all over the world, as many of us may think.
A quick Web search reveals at least 33 nations (including Israel) where Christmas is not a holiday. However, what is surprising is not how many countries don’t celebrate Christmas, rather how many who do, because it is specifically a religious holy day for Christians (really just how “Christian” does the “world” feel to you?).
Christmas celebrates the birthday of Jesus of Nazareth, whom Christians accept as the Messiah. In a majority of nations Christmas is observed on Dec. 25, but there are a significant number which observe it on Jan. 7 (e.g., nations where Orthodox Christianity is more prevalent such as Russia, Greece and the Middle East).
Like Christmas, Ash Wednesday is a religious holy day. Ash Wednesday begins the season of Lent, a 40-day (plus Sundays) period of reflection, repentance and prayer in preparation for Easter.
There are many significant uses of the number 40 in the Bible, but this 40 day period relates directly to the 40 days of trial and temptation Jesus faced after his baptism before he began his public ministry.
Both have a secular counterpart.
The secular counterpart to Christmas is, well … Christmas! This season has taken on a secular life of its own.
If you are a glass half-full kind of person you might say that the season is marked by good will and gift giving regardless of one’s religious beliefs. If you are more pessimistic you may describe it as rampant consumerism.
The secular counterpart to Ash Wednesday is Mardis Gras. Mardis Gras means “Fat Tuesday” and is observed in a variety of ways around the world, but only in places where Ash Wednesday is also observed.
Because Ash Wednesday marks the beginning of a season of fasting and repentance, the Tuesday before has become a kind of celebration in its own right where the idea was to use up all the party foods and spirit before the solemnity of Ash Wednesday and Lent.
Both are rooted in scripture, but neither is named.
While there are plenty of commands to observe special days in the Bible (like Passover and Pentecost), Christmas and Ash Wednesday both fail to make the list.
Does that make them unbiblical? Not all at all, both are based upon events recorded in scripture and both teach us about the uniqueness and importance of Jesus.
While we have no idea the exact date Jesus was born, we do know that the angels invited the shepherds to experience the new born Christ and that they responded and were moved to tell others. (Luke 2)
At their best that is exactly what a Christmas Service does. We come together to celebrate his birth and hopefully are then inspired to tell others.
We also know that after his 40 days in the wilderness Jesus began to preach. His first recorded sermon can be found in Matthew 4:17. “From that time on Jesus began to preach, ‘Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is near.’”
Repentance in the time of Christ was certainly an invitation for one’s heart to change – but it was most often accomplished through a ritual of repentance and mourning using, you guessed it, ashes.
The individual (whether in repentance or mourning) would heap ashes upon their head (Lam 2:10) and sit in the dust (Job 2:8).
Why the ashes and dust? Sitting in the dust and ashes pointed to the fragility of human life and to the inevitable end of all life – a return to the dust (Gen 3:19; Ps 103:14). Repent, the kingdom of heaven is near!
An Ash Wednesday service invites us to repent as individuals, enables us to mourn our calamity as a community, and to celebrate the promise of Christ to exchange our ashes for beauty (see Luke 4:18-19 & Isaiah 61:3).
Both have been wrongly labeled as “just for Catholics.”
While the Puritans had always looked down upon the celebration of Christmas, believing it was just for superstitious people (by which they prejudicially meant Catholics), it may surprise you to know that they successfully made it illegal to observe Christmas in the colonies.
From 1659 to 1681 you could be fined for even saying St. Nicholas, taking Dec. 25 off of work or decorating in any manner for Christmas. It was not a legal holiday in America until 1870. That’s only 143 years ago and it’s been 400 years since the English started the colonies here.
Likewise, Ash Wednesday has also been incorrectly considered only for Catholics. Yet many Christians from a variety of denominations observe Ash Wednesday.
While there are far too many different traditions to list, I will at least say that if you buy a church calendar from the Disciples, Methodists, Presbyterians, UCC, Lutherans and so on, each will show the appropriate date to observe this holy day.
Like Christmas, it’s not just for Catholics, though we are thankful to our Catholic brothers and sisters for keeping those traditions alive during the Puritan years when they may have been otherwise lost.
Both are a response to the sorrow of humanity.
Christ wasn’t born because the world was such a great place. He was born because it is such a broken place. He was born because it was a dark place and he came to be our Light. Christmas reminds us that in the darkest of times there is yet HOPE.
The Bible does not say that God never gives us more than we can handle. What it does say is that even the gates of hell will not prevail against Christ’s church (Matthew 16:15-20).
In this broken world isn’t it good to know there is a place we are welcome to come and be with others who are willing to acknowledge the brokenness, the ash, so that in repentance we might prayer for a brighter, made whole once again future? Ash Wednesday gives us an experience of grace in community.
UCP invites you to join us for each of these holy days.
Well, we actually aren’t prepared to invite you over for Christmas. We spend that with our families. But you are welcome any Christmas Eve at 7 p.m.
Our Ash Wednesday Service will be at 6 p.m. This year Ash Wednesday falls on Feb. 13.
Hope to see you at United Christian Parish.
Rev. Shannon Kimbell-Auth is pastor of United Christian Parish, located at 745 N. Brush St in Lakeport, Calif.