One day of every year, it is a simple matter to spot observant Catholics in the workplace or at the mall. That day is Ash Wednesday, which marks the beginning of Lent – that time of the year when Catholics make little personal sacrifices for reasons that I doubt are clear to many of them.
I recall the days of my youth, when I was caught up in the coils of Catholicism. On Ash Wednesday, I would stop off at church on my way to school so that the priest could smear oily ashes on my forehead. Then, all day long, as I felt particularly holy, my non-Catholic classmates would make fun of me and attempt to clear the smudge off of my face.
Why did I go through that every year? Why do observant Catholics do that today? There is more than one response to that question.
I do not doubt that some do it in heartfelt obedience to the teachings of their cult. I suspect that more than a few do it simply because they do not want any of their Catholic friends to consider them to be somewhat less than committed. I know from the comments of some of my long ago Catholic friends that they got smudged because "Sister made me have it done." There likely are others who get the smear in order simply because they have always done it..
I have been told, by some who considered themselves to be knowledgeable of things Catholic, that members of their religion have been getting dirty on Ash Wednesday since the earliest days of the church. At least one authoritative Catholic information source seems to disagree with that idea:
From the foregoing, it seems clear that Mama Church has not being smearing greasy goo on the foreheads of her faithful since the earliest days of the church. In fact, she has only been playing with that particular dirt for 1300 or so years. Still a long time, but several hundred years separated this 'sacramental' from the time immediately after Christ's sacrificial death.
How did the idea for this strange custom originate?
There you have it. In order to mark the day our Lord Jesus fulfilled His own prophetic statement by rising up from the grave, Catholics don't eat meat on Lenten Fridays, endure two whole days of what is comically called fasting, give up something they supposedly don't like and get oily soot smeared on their foreheads in order to be considered—at least among themselves—to be pure in spirit. Having done all that, it's time to start the Easter egg hunt before attending Mass to show off their fine new clothes.
I always am surprised when Catholics point to out-of-context verses from Scripture to support their pagan goings-on, given their oft-claimed charge that the Bible is a dead letter. One of the verses they claim supports getting their faces dirty on Ash Wednesday is Daniel 9:3
This verse is part of the prophet's confession of Israel's rebellion and sinful ways, which were consequences of having turned aside from obedience to God. Acknowledging one's faults is the beginning of repentance, which is a turning away from former ways. Daniel's confession continues:
Daniel's words call to mind the words God spoke to Moses when He gave to the prophet what we know as the Ten Commandments:
In speaking these words, our God was not acting as a critic of artistic expression. He was making it absolutely clear that He was censuring idolatry and false worship. He made it clear that failure to keep this commandment would seriously affect Hebrew generations yet to be born. This is not to be understood that the Hebrew generations to come would be punished for the present generation's disobedience. Rather, they would imitate what they saw in their parents' behavior and would practice the idolatry and disobedience of their fathers. For this they would be punished. The Lord God was not saying that He would punish the Hebrew peoples for so long as they existed, but that He would show compassion and mercy to those who turned aside from their evil ways and kept His commandments.
So what does all this have to do with Daniel 9:3? Well, just as Daniel wrote that he would put on sackcloth and ashes to demonstrate contrition, it appears that the Catholic Church considers getting a dirty face to be the equivalent of Daniel's pious entreaty. There is a difference, however. Whereas Daniel was in an agony of remorse when he wrote said these things, Catholics for the most part, I believe, are merely going through the motions—putting on a show for their fellows and anyone else who happens to notice. This seemed to me when I was a young Catholic, and still does today, to be a boastful expression similar to wearing a sign that reads; "Look at me. I am holier than you." Nothing like the meaning of the cliché phrase defined here:
So Catholic faithful go to their churches on Ash Wednesday to receive the mark of what? Penitence? Hardly; for they they surely do not repent--turn aside--from their idolatry and false relligion. Are they flaunting their pagan ways before God in the eyes of the world? It seems so.
Getting a dirty face marks the beginning of Lent, but just what is Lent?
There you have it. Christians [read 'Catholics'] who observe Lent "join Jesus on His retreat!" Give me a break. Jesus spent 40 days in the wilderness preparing Himself for His active ministry. Now, there are some who argue that ancient Hebrews understood the term "forty days" not to mean forty actual days, but a long time. Whichever understanding you have, I seriously doubt that our Savior ate or drank anything during that time.
Jesus fasted, which I understand to mean 'ate nothing.' How does getting a dirty face, observing two Catholic parodies of fasting and abstaining from chocolate-covered pistachios equate to joining Jesus on His retreat?
When the Lord God spoke the above words to His prophet, He was responding to the whining of the Hebrew nation, who were upset that though they had fasted and afflicted their souls, the Almighty had not answered their prayers. In the verses that follow, God lets them know that fasting and self-affliction were not what He wanted. Rather, the fast that God demanded was something quite different:
Just as God was not pleased with symbolic, but empty, fasting and penitence in Isaiah's day, so must He not be pleased with the hollow piety of the Catholic observance of Ash Wednesday and the Lenten 'fast.' The Romish position is not, of course, in agreement with God's words given through Isaiah:
Are you in a quandary over whether to observe the hollow Catholic observance of Ash Wednesday and Lent or to please God by conforming to His admonitions to feed the hungry, shelter the homeless, clothe the naked and be united with one's family?
The answer seems clear to me, as it was to Joshua who said,
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