Fish Sticks and Fiddlesticks

I grew up Roman Catholic and remember that Fridays were fish days. At school it was normally fish sticks for lunch, especially during Lenten Season. I didn’t particularly like the season, for it meant fasting some favorite food or giving up something I liked. Of course, the season began on Ash Wednesday with a priest putting ashes on the forehead. I remember being stigmatized by the mark and trying to explain to my Protestant friends why I was branded.

Now more and more Protestant churches, including Evangelical ones, are applying ashes on foreheads of their congregants. Now a Protestant and born again in Christ, I am appalled at the practice. I can understand the desire of becoming more contemplative leading up to Holy Week and Resurrection Sunday, but I disdain the thought of becoming more Catholic by doing some things that the Protestant Reformation abhorred.

The fast and the ritual dusting of ashes predate Christianity, for many Old Testament people like Job repented “with sackcloth and ashes.” Originally, the ritual fasting in the early church was associated with those getting baptized, indicating their penitent nature. The days of fasting were expanded to 40 days by the 4th century, which commemorated the suffering of Jesus in the wilderness. Ulrich Zwingli, the Swiss Reformer, protested against the Catholic Lenten traditions in 1522 by defending Swiss printers who had complained about abstaining from meat when they needed the protein for strength to work hard. Zwingli complained that the rules of Lent were more about obeying Rome’s traditions than supporting the gospel, which he said had nothing to do with eating sausages in the weeks preceding Easter.

Martin Luther also cautioned against obeying the rules and traditions of Lent with a view to meriting something from it. He said that Catholic teachings falsely promoted the idea that fasting and good works could eradicate sin and earn points toward salvation. John Calvin in his Institutes of the Christian Religion criticized Lent as a “superstitious observance.” The increase in Lenten observance by Protestants could be born out of guilt, for non-participation in events leading up to Holy Week may plague the conscience of the righteous—or should I say the self-righteous.

Although ashes are used in the Old Testament to indicate sorrow and repentance of the penitent, they are not ritualized in the New Testament as a ceremony of ablution. The purification of the believer has already occurred through the blood of Christ. Ashes and fish sticks are the stuff of Catholic folklore to which I say “fiddlesticks.” It is nonsense and the stuff of superstition!