Where did Ash Wednesday and Lent come from? Are they relics of paganism? No. They are not. The actual history is much more interesting and beneficial.
“The beginning of the fast of forty days is on the fifth of the month Phamenoth (we call Ash Wednesday); and when, as I have said, we have first been purified and prepared by those days, we begin the holy week of the great Easter on the tenth of the month Pharmuthi (Palm Sunday), in which, my beloved brethren, we should use more prolonged prayers, and fastings, and watchings, that we may be enabled to anoint our lintels with precious blood, and to escape the destroyer (Exod. xii. 7, 23.). Let us rest then, on the fifteenth of the month Pharmuthi (Easter Sunday Eve), for on the evening of that Saturday we hear the angels’ message, ‘Why seek ye the living among the dead? He is risen (Luke xxiv. 5).’ Immediately afterwards that great Sunday receives us, I mean on the sixteenth of the same month Pharmuthi (Easter Sunday morning), on which our Lord having risen, gave us peace towards our neighbours.
We learn from this that even at the time the Nicene Creed was written, at the time Constantine the Great ruled, the Western and Eastern Churches practiced a voluntary fast for 40 days before Easter.
That this was practiced in Rome and elsewhere is seen in St. Athanasius’ letter from the year 340 A.D. when he returns from a meeting of pastors/bishops from all around the world, and he encourages his own congregations to continue in the same practice of the 40 day Lenten fast as does “the rest of the whole world.”
In order to count the 40 days of Lent the Sundays of that season are not counted as part of the fast. Rather the Sundays are each a minor feast day. If you add the six feast Sundays to the 40 fast days you get 46 days. That means that the first day of the Fast of Lent is a Wednesday, just as Athanasius explained.
The 40 days was not counted the same way in all areas. About the year AD 380 a woman named Egeria (also called Etheria or Aetheria) documented her trip to Jerusalem and the liturgical practices in the area. Regarding Lent she says this:
“And when the Paschal days come they are observed thus : Just as with us forty days are kept before Easter, so here eight weeks are kept before Easter. And eight weeks are kept because there is no fasting on the Lord’s Days, nor on the Sabbaths, except on the one Sabbath on which the Vigil of Easter falls, in which case the fast is obligatory. With the exception then of that one day, there is never fasting on any Sabbath here throughout the year. Thus, deducting the eight Lord’s Days and the seven Sabbaths (for on the one Sabbath, as I said above, the fast is obligatory) from the eight weeks, there remain forty-one fast days, which they call here Eortae, that is Quadragesimae.” (Chapter 27 Egeria’s Description of the Liturgical Year in Jerusalem: Translation, Based on the translation reproduced in Louis Duchesme’s Christian Worship (London, 1923) http://users.ox.ac.uk/~mikef/durham/egetra.html#ch27 )
Though the 40 day Lenten Fast was scheduled differently in Jerusalem, it was still the 40 day Lenten Fast.
Ashes and Ash Wednesday
The practice of believers using ashes to represent sorrow and repentance is well testified in the Bible. In the ancient world it was the natural formal response of those who are sorry for their sins:
- Mordecai’s repentance and the repentance of the Jews in exile; Esther 4:1,3 When Mordecai learned all that had happened, he tore his clothes and put on sackcloth and ashes, and went out into the midst of the city. He cried out with a loud and bitter cry. And in every province where the king’s command and decree arrived, there was great mourning among the Jews, with fasting, weeping, and wailing; and many lay in sackcloth and ashes.
- Job’s repentance: Job 2:8 And he took for himself a potsherd with which to scrape himself while he sat in the midst of the ashes.
- See also Isaiah 58:5; Jeremiah 6:26; Daniel 9:3; Jonah 3:6; and Christ’s harsh words to the cities of Chorazin and Bethsaida in Luke 10:13.
The Christian Liturgical use of ashes is documented by Tertullian(c. 160 – c. 225). In his On Repentance Ch. 11 Tertullian complains about those who claim repentance but do not want to demean themselves with fasting, sackcloth, and ashes.
Eusebius (c. 260- c. 340) records a particular liturgical use of ashes as a sign of public repentance by an individual (Church History Bk5, Ch 28, par. 12).
Documentation on Ash Wednesday
Ash Wednesday was not a uniform practice in the church, but by the late 7th and early 8th century we have strong evidence of uniformity of practice in Western Europe.
Bede (672-735) dates sermons based on Ash Wednesday; for example: Homily 37 “in die Cinerum” (Minge PL 94:349); Homily 38 “in fiera quinta post Cinerum” (Minge PL 94:350), etc.https://books.google.com/books?id=rvQQAAAAYAAJ&pg=PT62#v=onepage&q&f=false )
8th Century Gelasian Sacramentary begins Lent (Quadragesima) on Wednesday (Minge PL 74:1065 https://archive.org/stream/patrologiaecurs21goog#page/n535/mode/2up )
Ælfric of Eynsham (c. 955 – c. 1010), an English abbot in a sermon on Ash Wednesday (Aelfric’s Lives of the Saints, ed. p. 236 https://archive.org/stream/aelfricslivesof01aelf#page/262/mode/2up/search/ashes )
“On the Wednesday, throughout the whole world, the priests bless, even as it is appointed, clean ashes in church, and afterward lay them upon men’s heads, that they may have in mind that they came from earth, and shall again return to dust, even as the Almighty God spake to Adam, after he had sinned against God’s command….
“Now let us do this little in the beginning of our Lent, that we strew ashes upon our heads,
Sarum Use of the 11th Century has special service for Ash Wednesday including the imposition of ashes. (in this English translation it begins on p. 52 https://books.google.com/books?vid=08I4RhaJDeU0z2Dt&id=cyUBAAAAQAAJ&pg=RA1-PR7&lpg=RA1-PR7&dq=%22Sarum+Missal#v=onepage&q=ashes&f=false )
According to Nicolaus Nilles it was at the Council of Benevento in AD 1090 that Pope Urban II standardised the use ashes on Ash Wednesday making it uniformly the liturgical head, or beginning of the Lenten Fast. (Nilles, 1897 Kalendarium Manuale vol II, p. 94. )
The Suppression of Ash Wednesday
I don’t have the library resources available to examine the Lutheran Church Orders of the 15th and 16th centuries. What I have gathered is from the development of liturgical practice in English.
The origins of the Book of Common Prayer in England were greatly affected by Luther through the chief author, Archbishop Thomas Cranmer. In turn, during the shift from the German language to English in America, both before World War I and later, the Anglican Book of Common Prayer was a significant resource for the framers of the liturgical practice of English speaking Lutherans from the beginning of the 20th century in America.
The Parliament and King Edward VI enacted An Act for Uniformity of Service and Administration of the Sacraments throughout the Realm in 1549. This law mandated the use of the Book of Common Prayer for every citizen of the realm. It also made using other forms or services an act punishable by civil law. Cranmer was not Lutheran, he was Calvinist. By 1552 he had readied a second edition of the Book of Common Prayer which eliminated many liturgical practices and specifically condemned Lutheran teaching on the Sacrament of the Altar.
Cranmer’s non-Lutheran but Calvinist Reformed theology embraced what they called the Regulative Principle of Worship: which means that they asserted that anything not explicitly commanded by God for worship is sin. In Cranmer’s view he needed to improve the Book of Common Prayer according to this principle. His first edition was a concession to the weak, but he aimed (in his way of thinking) to eliminate any liturgical teaching or practice that was not explicitly commanded in Scripture.
So the first edition of the Book of Common Prayer (1549) has the propers for “The first day of Lent, commonly called Ashwednesday”
( https://archive.org/stream/firstbookofcommo00waltuoft#page/n137/mode/2up )
The second edition of 1552 has only
“The first day of Lent” (http://justus.anglican.org/resources/bcp/1549/Readings_Lent_1549.htm)
A similar change was made elsewhere. The 1549 edition contained a whole section dedicated to Ash Wednesday:
“ xii. A declaracion of scripture, with certein prayers to bee use the firste daye of Lent, commonlye called Ashwednesdaie.”
This was retitled for the 1552 edition to remove any reference to Ash Wednesday:
“Xx. A Comminacion against sinners, with certain praiers to be used divers tymes in the yere.”
With the publication of this volume a renewed Act of Uniformity in 1552 required the use of this new version with it’s elimination of Ash Wednesday, the use of ashes, and several other liturgical practices previously legally accepted. Along with this the new edition added at the end of the Service of Communion a paragraph that became called the “Black Rubric” which warned against kneeling and condemned the Scriptural teaching of the Lord’s Supper:
Although no ordre can be so perfectlye devised, but it may be of some, eyther for theyr ignoraunce and infermitie, or els of malice and obstinacie, misconstrued, depraved, and interpreted in a wrong part: And yet because brotherly charitie willeth, that so much as conveniently may be, offences shoulde be taken awaye: therefore we willing to doe the same. Whereas it is ordeyned in the booke of common prayer, in the administracion of the Lord’s Supper, that the Communicants knelyng shoulde receyve the holye Communion. whiche thynge beyng well mente, for a sygnificacion of the humble and gratefull acknowledgyng of the benefites of Chryst, geven unto the woorthye receyver, and to avoyde the prophanacion and dysordre, which about the holy Communion myght els ensue: Leste yet the same kneelyng myght be thought or taken otherwyse, we dooe declare that it is not ment thereby, that any adoracion is doone, or oughte to bee doone, eyther unto the Sacramentall bread or wyne there bodily receyved, or unto anye reall and essencial presence there beeyng of Christ’s naturall fleshe and bloude. For as concernynge the Sacramentall bread and wyne, they remayne styll in theyr verye naturall substaunces, and therefore may not be adored, for that were Idolatrye to be abhorred of all faythfull christians. And as concernynge the naturall body and blood of our saviour Christ, they are in heaven and not here. For it is agaynst the trueth of Christes true natural bodye, to be in moe places then in one, at one tyme. (http://justus.anglican.org/resources/bcp/1552/Communion_1552.htm )
The 1552 edition lasted six months, King Edward VI died of tuberculosis at the age of 15. His half-sister Mary (Bloody Mary) took the throne and re-established Roman Catholicism. She died in 1588, and her half-sister Elizabeth I took the throne. Elizabeth I re-established the Anglican Church and issued a new Book of Common Prayer in 1559. This edition followed the 1552 edition in eliminating any reference to ashes or Ash Wednesday.
During the reign of Elizabeth I, Fox’s Book of Martyrs, was published by John Day in 1563. This volume was an anti-Roman Catholic polemical text. Its aim was to demonstrate the historical legitimacy of the Church of England by showcasing the abuses of the Roman Catholic Church and the Papacy. When the 3rd edition (1576) and 4th edition (1583) of Fox’s Book of Martyrs were produced this anti-Rome sentiment had grown more strong.
In 1571 English law required that Fox’s Book of Martyrs be placed beside the Bible in churches and read alongside Scripture during the services. The 1576 edition first records how after the death of Henry VIII (1547) Thomas Cranmer, the Archbishop of Canterbury, worked to abolish the use of candles at Candlemas; ashes at Lent, and the use of palm branches on Palm Sunday. (1576 ed, bk 9, p. 1286 https://www.johnfoxe.org/index.php?realm=text&gototype=&edition=1576&pageid=1286&anchor=%20ashes%20#kw)
For the English liturgical world, Ash Wednesday was expunged from language and practice.
Claims of Pagan Origin
So, what are the supposed pagan origins of Ash Wednesday and Lent?
The claim that Ash Wednesday and Lent are based on pagan origins is a relatively new fiction that comes mainly from two different sources.
The chief source is the irresponsible work of Alexander Hislop in the mid 1800s and those who followed him; both those who claim to be Christian and those who oppose Christianity.
Second main source is the neo-pagan movement today that falsely imagines that paganism is the most ancient of religions and rejects the Bible totally. But, as we have seen above, Lent and Ash Wednesday have no origins in paganism.
You will find all kinds of books, articles, videos, and websites on the Internet that claim that Ash Wednesday and Lent are not Biblical because Christ never commanded them. In this way they base their argument upon the Calvinist Regulative Priciple of Worhsip.
Their claim is partly true. And Satan likes to use truth to give credibility to his lies.
It is true that Christ didn’t command any such celebration. Christ did not command His followers to celebrate Ash Wednesday. Nor did he command that we worship on Sunday. Nor did He command that we sing “Rock of Ages.” Nor did he command that we use chairs or pews when we gather. Nor did he command we use Advent Candles, etc… .
The problem with the Regulative Principle is this: If Christ didn’t specifically command us to do something, then it is a sin to do it. So, think about how little sense that logic makes. Take this example: Christ did not command that I have my children wash dishes. Is it therefore a sin to have them do so? No.
What Christ did command and give to His Church was that the Word of God be preached for the remission of sins; that is, that the Law and the Gospel be taught, so people would be brought to repentance; and that faith in Christ would be given to them. He commanded that sins be forgiven in His name through the absolution to penitent sinners and withheld from the impenitent as long as they do not repent. He commanded that all nations, young and old, regardless of race be baptized for the forgiveness of their sins. He commanded that we celebrate the feast of His Holy Supper where He gives us His Body and Blood together with the bread and wine in the Sacrament for the forgiveness of our sins. He gave us the promise that the Father hears our prayers in Christ’s name because He has made us His brothers and sisters through the forgiveness of sins—won for us on the cross and distributed to us through Word and Sacrament. The prayer and celebration of these gifts can be held any day.
It is very important to remember that the use of the Regulative Principle was the justification Cranmer used to deny what the Scripture actually teaches about the Christ’s presence in the Lord’s Supper.
The ancient Church recognized that it was free from legalistic obligations, both from the Old Testament Law, and from new invented laws of men. As St. Paul wrote in Colossians 2. They also knew from Scripture that they were not to use this liberty as an excuse for sin. (Romans 6) They knew that they were not to let their consciences be bound by new human regulations as if their salvation depended upon them. (Galatians 1-2) Whatever was beneficial for the teaching of God’s word and for the practice of the Christian life-consisting of repentance and forgiveness in the Means of Grace-was encouraged.
With regard to Lent in general:
The 40 day fast does not come from the so-called “weeping of Tammuz” as claimed by the radical anti-Roman Catholic writer Alexander Hislop in his book The Two Babylons. Hislop made up myths and connections out of thin air because of his hatred for Roman Catholicism. Hislop’s views were adopted whole cloth by many Reformed denominations and others. One should note that these views were wholely embraced by the Jehovah’s Witnesses, who continued to republish Hislop’s book until 1987. Hislop’s book was cited in 22 different issues of the Jehovah’s Witnesses periodical The Watchtower from 1950 to 1978, and several times in the 1980s. From 1989 the Jehovah’s Witnesses stopped referring to Hislop’s book, but they have kept Hislop’s teaching and use other sources.
The month of Tammuz in Old Testament times is roughly equivalent to our July. To the best evidence, that was when the Babylonian pagans, and the fallen Israelites mentioned in Ezekiel 8:14 would “weep for Tammuz”. Also, this weeping took place on the second day of that month, right after the new moon. Not for forty days.
Two basic facts: 1) The weeping for Tammuz was not a 40 day thing. That is Hislop’s fiction. 2) The month of Tammuz is 4 months after Easter. They aren’t even in the same time of year. ( From the The Electronic Text Corpus of Sumerian Literature: Inana and Bilulu: an ulila to Inana: c.1.4.4 English Translation)
With regard to Ashes and Ash Wednesday:
Many websites claim that the use of ashes comes from pagan sources.
The ironic thing is that these websites cannot get their own stories straight. Some people assert that the ashes and Lent come from Nordic Odin worship, others that they come from pagan Roman cults, others that they come from ancient Hindu religions—and some try to maintain irrational combinations of the above very different imagined sources. We have seen above the reasons the churches gave for using ashes. They were based in Biblical examples of repentance.
But didn’t Jesus tell us not to put on a show while fasting? Yes, that’s in Matthew chapter 6:
“Moreover, when you fast, do not be like the hypocrites, with a sad countenance. For they disfigure their faces that they may appear to men to be fasting. Assuredly, I say to you, they have their reward. But you, when you fast, anoint your head and wash your face, so that you do not appear to men to be fasting, but to your Father who is in the secret place; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you openly.”
He said the same of prayer and of giving charitable gifts. His point is that these things should not be done as a show of righteousness. He did not prohibit praying in public or as a group in worship. He did not prohibit giving something publicly or to a group. And he did not prohibit using outward symbols of repentance like ashes.
What Christ condemned in these passages is thinking that we can show others how good, how sincere, how devout, and what kind of a Christian we are with these outward symbols. The ash on the forehead is a confession that the person is worth only ashes, has no righteousness, is not better than another, and needs God’s grace if there is to be any hope for him or her.
It might be helpful to think of the use of ashes in comparison to the use of an Advent Wreath. Both are helpful reminders that can be used to focus upon the teaching of God’s Word. This would be a proper use.
Can the symbol be abused? Yes, of course it can. But that does not make it a bad symbol. Every gift of God can be abused by sinful people. We should expect that because of sin. So we should recognize that the ways that Christians choose in their freedom to celebrate God’s gifts can also be misused.
So we see, first of all, that neither forty day fast of Lent nor the ashes of Ash Wednesday have anything to do with pagan origins. The use of ashes in the Christian faith as a sign of repentance is as old as Job, and probably older. It certainly is the outward act chosen by believers throughout thousands of years, from the earliest times as outward sign to confess unworthiness and sin.
No human can require a Christian to use the fast of Lent as a saving work. A congregation can recommend the practice as a serious self-examination of one’s own sin and sinful appetites; of one’s own weaknesses. This is, indeed, what Luther says, “Fasting and bodily preparation are indeed a fine outward training.” No human can require Christians to use ash on Ash Wednesday or any other day as a way of proving their faith.
And neither can any human forbid the use of the Lenten fast or the use of ashes either. Both are legalism, a replacing of the Gospel for a new law. The whole point of Ash Wednesday and the Lenten Fast is to look on ourselves as worthless and utterly needy: to look only upon Christ, to celebrate His feast in the Lord’s Supper, preach His passion and death upon the cross, and proclaim the Resurrection of Christ as the final seal upon our salvation.
We should reject any fictionalizing about pagan origins of Lent or Ash Wednesday with both the truth of Scripture and real history.