Ashes on Ash Wednesday

Feb 27th, 2012 | By | Category: Blog Posts

Some Protestants suggest that Jesus’s words in Matthew 6:17 are an unconditional prohibition of the use of ashes in association with fasting (and presumably that their use at the beginning of Lent is therefore unwarranted):

But you, when you fast, anoint your head and wash your face. (Matthew 6:17)

For them it seems pretty clear that any use of ashes in association with fasting contradicts what Jesus says here and therefore constitutes disobedience to Him. This conclusion is unwarranted.

The quotation is taken from the Sermon on the Mount. Elsewhere in the same sermon the Lord Jesus says this:

So let your light shine before men, that they may see your good works, and glorify your Father who is in heaven. [Matthew 5:16]

Jesus says that one of the proper effects of our good works is to serve as a witness to others, so that they will come to glorify God as we do ourselves. This being the case it is likewise clear that to hide one’s good works at all times and in every case amounts to a direct contradiction of what He says here. We may reasonably conclude that our good works are good not just for our own souls but also for the souls of others.

The next thought to consider is whether fasting qualifies as a “good work.” I believe that this goes without saying. It is unquestionably a good work when done for the right reason: namely, as a sign of our penitence before God. I ask, then, whether there is any reason to suppose that fasting is a good work that we should let other men see? In light of Matthew 5:16 is it reasonable for others to see our penitence? Yes. There is good reason to suppose that fasting should at least sometimes be seen by others. Why? Because it is a sign of penitence, and it is absurd to suppose that men would always and only be harmed by seeing our penitence. Indeed, the fact of our repentance could very reasonably be understood by others as a reason that they too should be sorry before God for their own sins.

So fasting is a good work, and it is perfectly reasonable to hold that others may benefit from seeing us fast, and thereby come to glorify our Father who is in heaven (as Matthew 5:16 says). But fasting is something that isn’t immediately obvious. We can’t look at a man and thereby know that he is fasting. Hence the value of the sign of ashes, which are a visible sign of the inward realities of penitence and fasting. Contrary to being an evil thing, an external sign of penitence is a good thing precisely because it shows to other men that we are penitent—something that is a good work, and which therefore (in keeping with the Lord’s command in Matthew 5:16) we ought (at least sometimes) to let men see so that they too may glorify God with us.

What shall we say, then, about Matthew 6:17? Does this view of penitence as something that should at least occasionally be seen contradict what the Lord says there? No it does not. To see this we need only look at its context:

Take heed that you do not your justice before men, to be seen by them: otherwise you shall not have a reward of your Father who is in heaven. Therefore when you do an alms-deed, sound not a trumpet before you, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and in the streets, that they may be honoured by men. Amen I say to you, they have received their reward. But when you do alms, let not your left hand know what your right hand does. That your alms may be in secret, and your Father who sees in secret will repay you. And when you pray, you shall not be as the hypocrites, that love to stand and pray in the synagogues and corners of the streets, that they may be seen by men: Amen I say to you, they have received their reward. But you when you shall pray, enter into your chamber, and having shut the door, pray to your Father in secret, and your father who sees in secret will repay you. … And when you fast, be not as the hypocrites, sad. For they disfigure their faces, that they may appear unto men to fast. Amen I say to you, they have received their reward. But you, when you fast, anoint your head and wash your face; that you appear not to men to fast, but to your Father who is in secret: and your Father who sees in secret, will repay you. [Matthew 6:1-6, 16-18; emphasis added]

In context the Lord’s point is clear: when we do good, and when we give alms, and when we pray, and when we fast, our goal must not be to gain the approval of men, and we must not be hypocritical: that is, our good deeds, alms, prayers, and fasting must be genuine. In this light there is no conflict at all between the Lord’s prior command (in Matthew 5:16) to let men see our good works and these commands. We do good not for the sake of the praise of others and not as hypocrites but out of love for God, and in the hope that if men do see them, they will be moved to glorify God with us. So the point with regard to fasting (in Matthew 6:17) is not that ashes are simply out of bounds, but that we must be truly penitent.

The alternatives are ridiculous. It is absurd to think that public prayer is always hypocritical. It is absurd to think that hypocrisy is always present if a man makes known his penitence by means of ashes. Furthermore the Lord at least tacitly commends the use of ashes as a sign of penitence when He said this:

Woe to you, Corozain, woe to you, Bethsaida: for if in Tyre and Sidon had been wrought the miracles that have been wrought in you, they had long ago done penance in sackcloth and ashes. [Matthew 11:21]

Jesus says here that sackcloth and ashes are signs of the genuine repentance that would have been found in Tyre and Sidon. Consequently it is clear that He considered the use of ashes as a sign of genuine penitence to be a good thing and not evil. So the use of ashes by Catholics on Ash Wednesday is not a violation of what the Lord says in Matthew 6:17 unless a particular Catholic or other is hypocritical in receiving them. If he is not genuinely penitent, or if he receives the ashes merely for the sake of being seen to receive them, then he would indeed be violating what the Lord has said.

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  1. Fred:

    Thank you for this helpful article. You answered several of my questions. Also, I was wondering about a different response to this particular protestant objection. Would it be accurate to say that the ashes are not necessarily a sign that we are fasting, but a sign of our mortality–a witness to our neighbors that death is imminent? Thus, we are not ‘showing off’ but are witnesses to the fact that this world is no man’s home. Again, thanks for the great article.

    Nick T.

  2. Nick,

    The Catholic Encyclopedia reports that the ashes are intended as a sign of penance rather than mortality, but also says this:

    A number of passages in the Old Testament connect ashes (efer) with mourning, and we are told that the mourner sat or rolled himself in, sprinkled his head or mingled his food with, “ashes”, but it is not clear whether in these passages we ought not rather to translate efer as dust. The same phrases are used with the word afar which certainly means dust. It may be that the dust was originally taken from the grave, in token that the living felt himself one with the dead, or it may be that humiliation and the neglect of personal cleanliness constituted the dominant idea; for a similar manifestation of grief was undoubtedly familiar among Aryan peoples, e.g. in Homer (Iliad, XVIII, 23). [emphasis added]

    So it seems the origin of the use of ashes as a sign of penitence may have been associated with the grave and a reminder of our mortality.

    I hope this helps,


  3. One thing I love about Catholicism is that it is all-in on every hand. Translation for non poker players: it does everything to the extreme. So there is a time to hide our fasting from others, but a time to not try to hide it. Tim Troutman memorably said it perfectly:

    Makes me think of St. Thomas More wearing the fines robes on the outside, but a hairshirt underneath. Or blessed John Paul II “taking the discipline” in his private chambers. For both men, there is a time for public acts, and a time for private.
    And when everyone is doing something, such as getting ashes on our forehead, or wearing a mantilla it is sort of hard to look at others as being holier-than-thou. That is what I love about these corporate acts like ashes and fasting. They are inherently not going to call attention to ourselves because everyone is doing it.
    Last year when I went up to receive the ashes, the person put ashes on the 2-year old in my arms. Shouldnt have surprised me, but it did! It brought tears to my eyes to see my little girl with those ashes! What a powerful experience. I am glad my 2 year old did not hide her ashes from her daddy’s eyes!

    Thanks Fred.

    David M.

  4. Fred, thanks so much for this article. I found the juxtaposition of the Gospel text with the imposition of the ashes to be very curious, but your explanation makes quite a bit of sense.

    David M., I had a similar experience this year: I was holding my ten-month-old son when I went up to receive ashes, and I started to walk away when the priest reached out to place them on my son’s head too. It was deeply moving to be reminded of our mortality in the midst of new life, but also wonderful to be reminded of our Lord’s passion by the shape of the cross!

    In Him through Her,

  5. Wondering if someone could help me understand something I stumbled across recently that addressed one of the reasons Catholics fast during Lent. A lengthy quote from an 18th century Pope (afraid I can’t remember which) was offered as an explanation for one of the purposes of lenten fasting. The Pope stated that fasting (and other forms of physical denial or self-induced pain) were useful for the purpose of self punishment, because if we don’t punish ourselves, we will certainly face the punishment of an angry and vengeful God. I don’t know if this concept represents official Catholic teaching, but this papal quote along with other Catholic practices (hair shirts, self flagellation) seem to fly directly in the face of St. Paul’s admonition to the Colossions:

    20 If you have died with Christ to the elementary principles of the world, why, as if you were living in the world, do you submit yourself to decrees, such as, 21 “Do not handle, do not taste, do not touch!” 22 (which all refer to things destined to perish with use)—in accordance with the commandments and teachings of men? 23 These are matters which have, to be sure, the appearance of wisdom in self-made religion and self-abasement and severe treatment of the body, but are of no value against fleshly indulgence.

    These Catholic practices certainly appear to be exactly what St. Paul was warning against, and contrary to the freedom of the Gospel. As a Protestant who is “leaning Catholic”, this is a real red flag that shouts: “self-made religion!”. Any thoughts. This comment is slightly off topic, so redirect me if needed.


  6. Burton (re:#5),

    I can’t speak to that exact Papal quote, as I have never read it or even been aware of it, but your mention of self-flagellation and hairshirts, in Catholic history, does remind me, to an extent, of what St. Paul writes in 1 Corinthians 9:24-27 (RSV):

    24 Do you not know that in a race all the runners compete, but only one receives the prize? So run that you may obtain it. 25 Every athlete exercises self-control in all things. They do it to receive a perishable wreath, but we an imperishable. 26 Well, I do not run aimlessly, I do not box as one beating the air; 27 but I pommel my body and subdue it, lest after preaching to others I myself should be disqualified.

    Now, to be clear, not every Catholic is called to such a “pommelling of the body,” as is seen in self-flagellation and the wearing of hairshirts. In fact, most Catholics probably aren’t called to such practices. The Magisterium recommends that these practices only be undertaken in the context of serious spiritual direction from a careful, knowledgeable priest or Bishop. However, Pope John Paul II practiced self-flagellation, so it is not an inherently abhorrent practice– *from* within a well-formed Catholic understanding. The “punishing” of the body therein is not done in an attempt to self-atone for one’s sins. As I understand, it is, at least, partially, a way to remind oneself of the *seriousness* of sin, so that one does not grow lukewarm or complacent in the battle against it. I’d love to hear other Catholics’ thoughts here. This is not an issue that I have *deeply* studied, but the careful practice of physical self-mortification does seem to have at least some Biblical warrant from 1 Corinthians 9:24-27.

  7. Burton (#5),

    You’re right that the question is a bit off topic for this post. However, so as not to leave you entirely high and dry, a few thoughts alongside Christopher’s:

    To my knowledge this specific practice is not discussed in the Catechism at all, so it’s certainly not obligatory. But (as Christopher points out), there does seem to be good reason to think that St Paul may have engaged in it, so it isn’t entirely unwarranted. Furthermore, there are other forms of self-discipline which aren’t generally considered to be unreasonable: for example, fasting (as on Ash Wednesday), or the traditional practice of Lenten sacrifices, etc. Fasting and other forms of voluntary strictness with oneself are surely not as remarkable as self-flagellation, but that doesn’t mean the latter is of a completely different species from the former.

    Lastly, if it’s not unreasonable to exercise corporal punishment with one’s children, I’m not sure why it should be unreasonable or immoral to do something similar with oneself.

    Does that help at all?



  8. Chris and Fred,

    Thanks for your responses. I won’t push the question any further on this thread, but perhaps someone could suggest a link to an article etc that more thoroughly addresses this issue in light of St. Pauls writings both to the Colossians (chap 2) and the Corinthians (chap 9) as quoted above, and specifically explains the official Catholic understanding of how the above-mentioned Catholic practices are inherently other than what St. Pauls warns against.


  9. Burton,

    Can you be more specific about what it is that concerns you? And if you can provide the link to the quotation from the pope that you mentioned, that would be helpful too.

  10. Burton,

    Where does Paul say that _all_ severe treatment of the body is wrong? The quote from Colossians at least indicates that some severe treatment of the body is “of no value against fleshly indulgence,” but it doesn’t say anything about _all_ such severe treatment. I would like you to tell me if there anything in Colossians which would indicate that all severe treatment of the body is “of no value against fleshly indulgence”? I can’t see it. But you tell me where it is and I will believe you.

    We all know from personal experience that there is a huge danger of seeing “all” in the bible where the word doesn’t appear. We tend to see the word “all” where it appeals to our own per-conceived fears and longings. I agree that “pommelling of the body” seems silly to us moderns, as it seems silly to me. But that doesn’t mean I have the right to add words to the Colossians quote just to make Paul out to by my ally in my prejudice. On the contrary, the burden is on me to examine my prejudice (which I have tried to do, and I encourage all readers of this blog to do).

    The burden of proof is on Protestants to prove that strictness with our own bodies is _always_ “of no use”, even though Paul never says so, and even though the holiest of the Church fathers fasted deeply and engaged in practices of severe strictness with their own bodies. The burden of proof is quite in the other direction.

    I sympathize with your prejudice, since it is mine as well. But it is for those of us with this prejudice to come-up with fancy exegesis to prove our point against the saints and fathers. We have the burden of proof, not them. They have a nice clean quote which says Paul “pommelled”, they have no quote where he says all “pommelling” is “useless,” and they have the example of the fathers and saints. If we are going to prove them wrong, we need to come-up with a pretty fancy argument. I am inclined to think, therefore, that my prejudice is wrong, and it I who need to change, not them.


    K. Doran

  11. Burton (re:#8),

    This article examines physical self-mortification, in light of both Scriptural passages and Catholic Tradition/history: I hope it is helpful for you, brother.

  12. Fred,

    I apologize for not being able to find the source of that papal quote – I stumbled across it on the web at a Catholic site while looking for info on lent and fasting, but I can’t find it again for the life of me. I guess what specifically concerns me is that Paul’s warnings in Colossians seem to so directly describe the Catholic practices of self mortification (specifically self flagellation, hairshirts etc) where pain is deliberately induced by direct injury to the body. I believe that the Colossians had come under the influence of gnostism, so perhaps they had engaged in practices that were in some way inherently different than the Catholic practices, but on the surface they seem to be the same.

    K. Doran (Kevin?),

    I sincerely hope that my prejudices are not blinding me to the truth of this matter, just trying to understand something that on its face seems to contradict the Bible. Having read both the relevant verses from Colossians and 1 Corinthians, I can see that not all self mortification in unhelpful, and indeed, whatever St. Paul means by “buffett my body and make it my slave”, in some way certain forms must be necessary for some people. So if the Bible does not forbid -all- means of self mortification, then what is the inherent difference between those types that are “self-made religion” and those that are good, and why do the Catholic practices (beyond fasting) come down on the side of the good. This is really what I am trying to understand.


    Thanks for the link. The article was helpful, but didn’t directly address the above questions.


  13. Burton asks: I don’t know if this concept represents official Catholic teaching, but this papal quote along with other Catholic practices (hair shirts, self flagellation) seem to fly directly in the face of St. Paul’s admonition to the Colossions …

    I would have to see the papal quote before I commented upon it. But I can comment on the idea that certain asetical practices “fly directly in the face of St. Paul’s admonition to the Colossians.” Actually, it is from St. Paul, that the Catholic Church received her teaching about the necessity of the “mortification of the flesh”:

    Mortification of the flesh (Transliteration: “Putting the flesh to death”) … The term “mortification of the flesh” comes from Saint Paul in this quote: “For if you live according to the flesh you will die, but if by the Spirit you put to death the deeds of the body you will live.”. The same idea is seen in the following verses: “Put to death what is earthly in you: fornication, impurity, passion, evil desire, and covetousness, which is idolatry”; “And those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires”.

    According to Christian exegesis, “deeds of the body” and “what is earthly”, refer to the “wounded nature” of man or his concupiscence (evil inclinations due to forming part of the Fall of Man); humanity suffers the consequences of the original sin.

    Thus, Jesus expected believers to repent from slavery to their flesh’s desires: “Woe to you, Korazin! Woe to you, Bethsaida! For if the miracles that were performed in you had been performed in Tyre and Sidon, they would have repented long ago, sitting in sackcloth and ashes”.

    In its simplest form, mortification of the flesh can mean merely denying oneself certain pleasures, such as abstaining from alcoholic beverages, meats, dairy products, etc. It can also be practiced by choosing a simple or even impoverished lifestyle; this is often one reason many monks of various religions take vows of poverty.

    Traditional forms of physical mortification are the cilice and hair-shirts. …



    asceticism, rejection of bodily pleasures through sustained self-denial and self-mortification, with the objective of strengthening spiritual life. Asceticism has been common in most major world religions, including Buddhism, Hinduism, Islam, Judaism, and Christianity: all of these have special ascetic cults or ascetic ideals. The most common ascetic practice is fasting … More extreme forms have been flagellation …


    Burton, are you concerned about ascetical practices in general when you make the comment your comment about the “freedom of the Gospel”? What, exactly do you mean by this term, “freedom of the Gospel”? The Gospel itself teaches about the necessity of the mortification of the flesh. Or are you only concerned about the more extreme forms of the mortification of the flesh, such as flagellation? Extreme ascetical practices don’t necessarily benefit one spiritually. The Catholic Church has condemned heretical sects of flagellents:

    Catholic Encyclopedia article: Flagellents

    A fanatical and heretical sect that flourished in the thirteenth and succeeding centuries … The Flagellant movement was but one of the manias that afflicted the end of the Middle Ages; others were the dancing-mania, the Jew-baiting rages, which the Flagellant processions encouraged in 1349, the child-crusades, and the like. …



    Flagellantism was a 13th and 14th centuries movement, consisting of radicals in the Catholic Church. It began as a militant pilgrimage and was later condemned by the Catholic Church as heretical. …Initially the Catholic Church tolerated the Flagellants and individual monks and priests joined in the early movements. By the 14th century the Church was less tolerant and the rapid spread of the movement was alarming. Clement VI officially condemned them in a bull of October 20, 1349 and instructed Church leaders to suppress the Flagellants. This position was reinforced in 1372 by Gregory XI who associated the Flagellants with other heretical groups, notably the Beghards …


    The Christian ascetical practices of prayer and fasting during Advent and Lent have their precedent in the Jewish ascetical practices of prayer and fasting:

    fasting, partial or temporary abstinence from food, a widely used form of asceticism. Among the stricter Jews the principal fast is the Day of Atonement, or Yom Kippur; …. Fasting is general in Christianity. The most widely observed fasts are Lent and Advent.


    Fred Noltie writes:

    In context the Lord’s point is clear: when we do good, and when we give alms, and when we pray, and when we fast, our goal must not be to gain the approval of men, and we must not be hypocritical: that is, our good deeds, alms, prayers, and fasting must be genuine.

    Fred Noltie’s point is well made. The Lord didn’t say “if you fast”, the Lord said “when you fast”. Our fasting is only beneficial when our intentions are right.

    The following from the Judaism 101 website explains that the reason why one fasts on Yom Kippur is because fasting is an act of repenting:

    Tips for Yom Kippur Fasting

    One of the primary and best-known observances of Yom Kippur is fasting. The purpose of fasting is to “afflict your soul,” a means of repenting. For some people, fasting is easy; for others, it is more difficult. But there is no particular merit in making this fast any more difficult than it has to be. … During Yom Kippur when I was in college, my classmates continually talked about how hungry they were, almost bragging about it, as if it were some kind of badge of honor showing what good Jews they were to suffer this way. Don’t fall into this trap!


  14. Burton (re:#12),

    I’m glad that the article I linked to was helpful for you. As to one way in which it addresses your above questions: in the article, the author mentions the Jewish Old Testament practice of wearing sackcloth. Sackcloth is an irritant to the skin. It is the Israelite equivalent of a hairshirt. The wearing of sackcloth is not shown in a negative way in the OT, but rather, it is portrayed as a positive sign of lamentation over, and repentance of, sin.

    Moreover, as mateo writes in comment #13, Jesus Himself mentions “repentance sitting in sackcloth and ashes” as a positive thing, not a negative (Luke 10:13). Obviously, Our Lord did not see fasting as the only profitable form of physical self-mortification. If He *had* held such a view, it stands to reason that He would have condemned the wearing of sackcloth, rather than holding it up as a positive sign of repentance.

    Whatever the forms of physical self-mortification are which St. Paul writes against in Colossians 2:20-23, they could not have included *all* forms other than fasting, because Jesus Himself upholds both fasting *and* wearing sackcloth. It seems more likely that St. Paul is writing about self-mortification done in a certain incorrect *spirit*– possibly, from within a non-Christian worldview.

    Physical self-mortification, on its own, apart from a genuine contrition over one’s sin, and a resolve toward repentance, *will not* restrain fleshly indulgence. However, when self-mortification is done thoughtfully, in a spirit of contrition and repentance, Jesus, in Luke 10:13, views it as a healthy practice. If Our Lord thinks that wearing the Old Testament equivalent of a hairshirt is a good thing (done in the right spirit), who are we to differ?

    Again, just to be clear, the Catholic Church recommends that severe forms of asceticism *only* be undertaken in the context of serious spiritual direction. These forms are *not* obligatory for lay Catholics. They may not be obligatory for any clergy either (I’m not sure about that one though).

  15. Hi All,
    Firstly, thank you to everyone who writes and comments here – this website has been very helpful on my journey so far, learning about the Catholic church.
    In the light of the above article and comments re mortification, how should one view Catholic practices such as happen in the Philippines, where some devotees imitate the crucifiction and tie themselves up on crosses and sometimes even pierce their hands with nails etc.. Is this an aberration, or rather an extreme, but nevertheless valid form of self-mortification? This is a genuine question.

  16. JP,

    The Filipino practices have been condemned by the Church. I’m pretty sure that the annual news reports about it regularly include mention of this fact. See for example here. Abusus non tollit usum. The fact that some Catholics practice an excess of self-mortification despite what the Church says doesn’t delegitimize more moderate forms of mortification, and the fact that members of the Catholic Church participate in those excesses doesn’t make those excesses a Catholic exercise.


  17. Christopher, Mateo, et. al.

    Thanks for the feedback. Your comments were instructive.

    Mateo, I was concerned about the more extreme forms such as self-flagellation and how they seem to correspond to the types of things St. Paul was warning about in Colossians chap 2. The context of that chapter is St. Paul’s description of what Christ did for us when He “forgave us all our trespasses, erasing the record that stood against us with its legal demands. He set this aside, nailing it to the cross ……. therefore …. do not let anyone disqualify you, insisting in self-abasement” (Col. 2:13-18) This is what I mean by freedom of the gospel, nailing the demands of the Old Law to the cross. Now, I certainly don’t know if the rare and optional Catholic practice of self-flagellation applies. St. Paul may well have been addressing some other pervasive and enforced practice committed by the Christian leaders at Colossae.


  18. Burton writes: St. Paul may well have been addressing some other pervasive and enforced practice committed by the Christian leaders at Colossae.

    Paul’s letter to the Colossians tells us what disciplines of the Old Law were no longer were imposed on Christians. The New American Bible has these explanatory footnotes to Colossians 2:4-23

    In face of the threat posed by false teachers the Colossians are admonished to adhere to the gospel as it was first preached to them steeping themselves in it with grateful hearts. They must reject religious teachings originating in any source except the gospel because in Christ alone will they have access to God, the deity. So fully has Christ enlightened them that they need no other source of religious knowledge or virtue. They do not require circumcision, for in baptism their whole being has been affected by Christ through forgiveness of sin and resurrection to a new life. On the cross Christ canceled the record of the debt that stood against us with all its claims, he eliminated the law that human beings could not observe—and that could not save them. He forgave sins against the law and exposed as false and misleading all other powers that purport to offer salvation. Therefore, the Colossians are not to accept judgments from such teachers on food and drink or to keep certain religious festivals or engage in certain cultic practices, for the Colossians would thereby risk severing themselves from Christ. If, when they accepted the gospel, they believed in Christ as their savior, they must be convinced that their salvation cannot be achieved by appeasing ruling spirits through dietary practices or through a wisdom gained simply by means of harsh asceticism.


    Burton writes:… I was concerned about the more extreme forms such as self-flagellation and how they seem to correspond to the types of things St. Paul was warning about in Colossians chap 2.

    Harsh asceticism alone can save no one, and that is what Paul is speaking against – from the footnotes above, “If, when they accepted the gospel, they believed in Christ as their savior, they must be convinced that their salvation cannot be achieved by appeasing ruling spirits through dietary practices or through a wisdom gained simply by means of harsh asceticism.”

    The key thing here is that harsh asceticism alone is of no value for salvation, not that ascetical practices in general are of no use.

    Burton writes: The context of that chapter is St. Paul’s description of what Christ did for us when He “forgave us all our trespasses, erasing the record that stood against us with its legal demands. He set this aside, nailing it to the cross ……. therefore …. do not let anyone disqualify you, insisting in self-abasement” (Col. 2:13-18) This is what I mean by freedom of the gospel, nailing the demands of the Old Law to the cross.

    Re “freedom of the gospel” – what, exactly, are the “demands of the Old Law” that were nailed to the cross? Is that every law found in the Jewish Scriptures? That can’t be true, because that would mean that Christians are no longer obliged to follow the Ten Commandments. Where does Paul ever preach that idol worshiping, adultery, murder and theft are no longer a sins for Christians? “Freedom of the Gospel” can’t mean antinomianism.

    Concerning the “Old Law” found in the Jewish Scriptures, in his letter to the Colossians, Paul is making the same argument that he makes in his letter to the Galatians. That there are to found in the Jewish scriptures certain disciplines (laws) that no longer need to be followed by Christians, i.e. the laws that were added for transgressions:

    Why then the law? It was added because of transgressions, till the offspring should come to whom the promise had been made; and it was ordained by angels through an intermediary. Gal 3:19

    The laws that were added for transgressions are things like the circumcision of the flesh and the Kosher dietary restrictions. These laws were like penance imposed by God on men because of their sin. The laws added for transgressions became null and void when the offspring came “to whom the promise had been made.” But not every law found in the Jewish scripture is null and void for Christians. There are, in fact, laws found in the Jewish scriptures that are still binding upon Christians. For example, besides the Ten Commandments, there are these two laws:

    … you shall love the LORD, your God, with your whole heart, and with your whole being, and with your whole strength
    Deuteronomy 6:5

    … You shall love your neighbor as yourself.
    Leviticus 19:18

    So how am I supposed to know which laws found in the Jewish Scriptures are binding upon Christians and which are not? Dr. Scott Hahn makes the point that in the Jewish Scriptures such as Leviticus and Numbers, the non-binding laws added for transgressions are mixed up with the moral laws that are still binding upon Christians. Dr. Hahn says that this problem shows why I need a church that speaks with divine authority. Left on my own, I will probably get some things wrong. Did Christ do away with the Jewish practice of praying for the dead? Am I no longer to practice the Jewish discipline of prayer and fasting? How am I supposed to know with certainty how to answer these questions without a church that can speak with divinely established authority? I can’t. Left on my own, I will make mistakes, and if I listen to those who have no divinely established authority, I might end up listening to someone like Ellen Gould White or Cotton Mather.

    The same problem arises with things such as beneficial ascetical practices. First and foremost, I need to listen to the men that have authority in Christ’s church to speak about these matters. I must not set myself up as the supreme authority in these matters. Those who practice the Latin Rite of the Catholic Church have disciplinary practices during Lent that their bishops have obliged them to practice. Those in the Eastern Rites of the Catholic Church have disciplinary practices that their bishops have set for them. In no Rite of the Catholic Church is self-flagellation made mandatory, or even encouraged.

    If a Catholic listens to his or her bishop, he or she is being obedient to those with the authority to establish Lenten ascetical discipline. But if he or she decides to practice an ascetical discipline that is discouraged, or even forbidden by his bishop, then he is being disobedient to his or her bishop, and such ascetical discipline does nothing good for the soul.

  19. Picking up, if I may, what Fred Noltie said @7 about CCC having nothing specific on mortification of the flesh, there are some scattered references to ascesis and/or mortification including at 1734 (freedom and responsibility and the mastery of the will), 2015 (Christian holiness in general, the way of perfection), and 2340 (in the context of chastity). It is also expressly discussed by Pope Paul VI in chapter 2 of his Apostolic Constitution of 1966 “Paenitemini” –

    Asceticism and mortification were noticed, but only in passing, by Blessed John Paul II in the post-Synodal Apostolic Exhortation “Reconciliatio et paenitentia” (1984) at 31.12 where he directs the reader to his 1984 Ash Wednesday catechesis (7 March 1984), available only in the Romance languages on the Vatican website – The catechesis opens by quoting 1Co.3:5 and concludes by quoting Col.1:24. Presumably because the discussion centres on the element of “satisfaction” in the sacrament of confession (a highly specialised term which does not imply the penitent’s payment of the price of forgiveness), there is no reference there to the act of beating the breast as an accompaniment to actual confession of sin (a prior stage in the sacrament) which has Dominical support in the parable of the pharisee and the publican (Lk.18:13) and – deriving precisely from that – liturgical support in the penitential rite at Holy Mass.

  20. I may be a Protestant…but I am not a biblicist.

    It is a good thing to receive the ashes and to be brought to a point of death. It is out of death that we live.


  21. Dear Burton,

    My parish just put this in the weekly bulletin today. While it isn’t a list of details about which mortifications are the right match for which people, which are always bad, etc, it does express beautifully why we do it I think:

    “In the long and difficult effort of spiritual recovery, the Church does not separate the soul from the body. The whole man has fallen away from God; the whole man is to be restored, the whole man is to return. The catastrophe of sin lies precisely in the victory of the flesh – the animal, irrational, the lust in us — over the spiritual and the divine. But the body is glorious, the body is holy, so holy that God himself ‘became flesh.’ Salvation and repentance then are not contempt for the body or neglect of it, but restoration of the body to its real function as the expression and the life of the spirit, as the temple of the priceless human soul. Christian asceticism is a fight, not against but for the body. For this reason, the whole man — soul and body — repents. The body participates in the prayer of the soul just as the soul prays through and in the body.”
    — Fr. Alexander Schemann (Eastern Orthodox Priest)

    I’m not Kevin, but I’m glad to make your acquaintance so to speak!


    K. Doran

  22. K. Doran,

    That is an excellent summary of the value of mortification. Thanks for sharing it!


  23. 18 Mateo.

    What else does Christ do than answer your question regarding the 2 other laws besides the 10 commandments?

     Jesus said unto him, Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy mind.
     This is the first and great commandment.
     And the second is like unto it, Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself.
    On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets. Matthew 22:36-40

    The first refers to the first table of the law and our duties to God, the second our duties to man.
    It is not that hard.

  24. K. Doran,

    Most helpful explanation I’ve read. Thanks so much. Not sure why I thought you were a “Kevin”!


  25. Robert (#23),

    It is not that hard.

    Please, let us seek to remain charitable. Thank you.

    But I submit that it is not as simple as “it is not that hard.” Jesus said, “If you love Me, keep My commandments.” Given that at least some commandments (for example, the law of circumcision) are no longer in force Mateo’s question (“So how am I supposed to know which laws found in the Jewish Scriptures are binding upon Christians and which are not?”) is valid. If you say that the Catholic Church could be wrong in what it says about what we must do in order to love Christ, then there is likewise no reason for confidence in any Protestant denomination’s judgments about it, nor in any man’s.



  26. k Doran
    Your post 21 sums it up for me best.
    Matthew Kelly did a satisfactory job at explaining fasting for me in his book Rediscover Catholicism. In summation “Fasting is one of the ingenious practices that the Church teaches us to ensure the body does not become our master.” The Schemann quote is good too as it further includes the importance of the body.
    just my opinion though!
    Thanks for the discussion

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