“By a single offering Christ has perfected for all time…”

All our sacrifices of penance, which amount to a return to Old Testament sacrifices, are to no avail because they can never remove our sins; indeed, they are not necessary because by Christ’s perfect and complete “single offering he has perfected for all time” all believers (Hebrews 10:14).

Today is Ash Wednesday, which begins the so-called season of Lent, traditionally a 40-day time of fasting and spiritual preparation preceding Easter (Resurrection) Sunday. Incidentally, the word “Lent” comes from an Anglo-Saxon word for “spring.” There is evidence that this preparation was observed even in the early church. Irenaeus, the early 3rd century pastor of Lyons (in France) wrote that there was a variety in the number of days of fasting before Easter Sunday—one, two, or more—and eventually his letter was mistranslated to mean that some Christians fasted for forty days. By the time of the Council of Nicaea in A.D. 325, “forty days of Lent” was recognized as a regular part of the church year.

As early as the 6th century, those who wanted to become members of the Order of Penitents received the ashen sign of the cross on their foreheads. By the 11th century, it had become a tradition for all the faithful to receive the ashen sign on the Wednesday before Lent. Later, the day come to be called Ash Wednesday, because of the use of ashes and the pronouncement by the priest as he marks the penitent with the ashen cross, “Remember man that thou art dust and unto dust thou shalt return.”

What is the basis for the use of ashes? In Scripture, people often wore sackcloth (black) and covered themselves with ashes as a way of signifying grief and repentance from sin, as when Jeremiah told Israel “put on sackcloth and roll in ashes” as a sign of true repentance (Jer 6:26; see also Isa 58:5; Dan 9:3; Jon 3:6; Est 4:1; Matt 11:21).

In the Roman tradition, Ash Wednesday is observed by various acts of contemplating on one’s sins, e.g., fasting, abstinence from meat, and repentance. This day is full of symbolism of penance, a sacrament in which the penitent sinner accuses himself of his sins before a confessor-priest. The penitent will pray a prayer of contrition, such as this:

My God, I am sorry for my sins with all my heart. In choosing to do wrong and failing to do good, I have sinned against you whom I should love above all things. I firmly intend, with your help, to do penance, to sin no more, and to avoid whatever leads me to sin. Our Saviour Jesus Christ suffered and died for us. In his name, my God, have mercy. (Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops)

The priest then offers advice and imposes a particular penance to be performed such as recitation of standard prayers, the stations of the cross, visits to a church, fasting, charitable work or giving, or a combination thereof. The priest, in “acting as the agent of Christ, grants forgiveness of sins” in this prayer of absolution:

God, the Father of mercies, through the death and resurrection of His Son has reconciled the world to Himself and sent the Holy Spirit among us for the forgiveness of sins; through the ministry of the Church may God give you pardon and peace, and I absolve you from your sins in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.

Is there anything wrong with the observance of Ash Wednesday? (By the way, except for the doing penance part, the above prayer of contrition is actually much better than the evangelical “sinner’s prayer”) While repentance is commanded by Scripture, true repentance is not shown through such acts as wearing an ashen cross on the forehead all day or saying a ritualistic sinner’s prayer of contrition and then going your own merry way afterwards. True repentance is confessing sin before God, “Have mercy on me, O God!” “Create in me a clean heart, O God!” (Psa 51:1, 10).

But the Psalmist also adds that mere words of contrition are not enough, but a contrite heart, “The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit; a broken and contrite heart, O God, you will not despise” (Psa 51:17). True repentance is twofold—”the dying of the old nature and the coming to life of the new.” This is what the Heidelberg Catechism affirms in Q&A 88, 89, and 90:

88. Question: What is the true repentance or conversion of man?
Answer: It is the dying of the old nature and the coming to life of the new.[1]
[1] Rom. 6:1-11; I Cor. 5:7; II Cor. 5:17; Eph. 4:22-24; Col. 3:5-10.

89. Question: What is the dying of the old nature?
Answer: It is to grieve with heartfelt sorrow that we have offended God by our sin, and more and more to hate it and flee from it.[1]
[1] Ps. 51:3, 4, 17; Joel 2:12, 13; Rom. 8:12, 13; II Cor. 7:10.

90. Question: What is the coming to life of the new nature?
Answer: It is a heartfelt joy in God through Christ,[1] and a love and delight to live according to the will of God in all good works.[2]
[1] Ps. 51:8, 12; Is. 57:15; Rom. 5:1; 14:17. [2] Rom. 6:10, 11; Gal. 2:20.

How does our old nature die? Is it by saying Hail, Mary! or the Lord’s Prayer repeatedly? Is it by flogging oneself bloody? Is it by praying at the stations of the cross? Is it by giving alms to the poor? Is it by fasting? Scripture says that the perfect and complete sacrifice of Christ paid for all our sins, and no amount of good deeds can add to his perfect obedience all the way to his sacrifice on the cross. All of our penance amount to nothing because he has paid for all of our sins “once for all” by his one sacrifice (Heb 7:27; 9:12). This is why the writer of Hebrews says:

And every priest stands daily at his service, offering repeatedly the same sacrifices, which can never take away sins. But when Christ had offered for all time a single sacrifice for sins, he sat down at the right hand of God, waiting from that time until his enemies should be made a footstool for his feet. For by a single offering he has perfected for all time those who are being sanctified (Heb 10:11-14).

All our sacrifices of penance, which amount to a return to Old Testament sacrifices, are to no avail because they can never remove our sins; indeed, they are not necessary because by Christ’s perfect and complete “single offering he has perfected for all time” all believers.

Sources:

Catholic Online: http://www.catholic.org
New Advent: http://www.newadvent.org
American Catholic: http://www.americancatholic.org
“Lent.” Reformed Answers

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