Ash Wednesday and the Season of Lent

Please use the notes below to reflect upon today and this upcoming season of Lent. As a church, we can not gather together today. May you find time to renew your commitment to daily repentance and remember with confidence that Christ has conquered death and sin.

ASH WEDNESDAY & THE SEASON OF LENT

The season of Lent is the forty days leading up to Easter, which commemorates the forty days of Christ’s temptation in the wilderness. It is characterized by a focus on penitence, fasting, and renewal.

Ash Wednesday is the first day of Lent.  By the fourth century, the Western Church determined that the Lenten period of fasting and renewal should correspond to Christ’s forty day fast in the wilderness (Matthew 4:2), and, by counting forty days back from Easter (excluding Sundays, which remain “feast” days), arrived at the Wednesday seven weeks before Easter.  At one time Lent was primarily viewed as a period during which converts prepared for baptism on Easter Sunday, but later the season became a general time of penitence and renewal for all Christians.  Thus Ash Wednesday became the day that marked the beginning of the Lenten renewal.  

The aim of Ash Wednesday worship is threefold:  to meditate on our mortality, sinfulness, and need of a savior; to renew our commitment to daily repentance on the Lenten season and all of life, and to remember with confidence and gratitude that Christ has conquered death and sin.  Ash Wednesday worship, then, is filled with gospel truth.  It is a witness to the power and beauty of our union with Christ and to the daily dying and rising with Christ that this entails.  

The imposition of ashes is often a central part of the worship service.  Ashes have a long history in biblical and church traditions.  In Scripture, ashes or dust symbolize frailty or death (Genesis 18:27), sadness of mourning (Esther 4:3), judgment (Lamentations 3:16), and repentance (Jonah 3:6).  Some traditions have also considered ash a purifying or cleansing agent.  All these images are caught up in the church’s use of ashes as a symbol appropriate for Lent.

In “Evangelical Is Not Enough” Thomas Howard writes: “Lent, like Advent, is a time of penitence. Here we identify ourselves with the Lord’s fast and ordeal in the wilderness, which He bore for us…the gospel teaches us that Christians are more than mere followers of Christ. We are His body and are drawn, somehow, into His own sufferings. We are even ‘crucified’ with Him.  The ancient church, in its observance of Lent, once more asks us to move through the gospel with Christ Himself…Lent asks us to ponder Christ’s self-denial for us in the wilderness. It draws us near to the mystery of Christ’s bearing temptation for us in His flesh, and of how in the Second Adam our flesh, which failed in Adam, now triumphs. Lent also leads us slowly toward that most holy and dread of all events, the Passion [suffering] of Christ. What Christian will want to arrive at Holy Week with his heart unexamined, full of foolishness, levity, and egoism? To those for whom any special observances hint of legalism or superstition one can only bear witness that the solemn sequence of Lent turns out to be something very different from one’s private attempts at meditating on the Passion. To move through the disciplines in company with millions and millions of other believers all over the world is a profoundly instructive thing.”

Many people find it helpful to voluntarily give up something during Lent, such as a simple pleasure or small luxury, as a reminder of the sufferings and sacrifice of Christ on their behalf. This common practice is not mandated in the Bible nor is it a sign of exceptional spirituality. It is merely a technique to use temporary physical longings to point one toward a deeper spiritual reality.

Dorothy Sayers writes that to make the Easter story into something that neither startles, shocks, terrifies, nor excites is “to crucify the Son of God afresh.” Certainly that would have been unthinkable for Jesus’ first followers, who experienced it firsthand: the heady excitement of his entry into Jerusalem, the traitorous cunning of Judas and the guilty recognition of their own cowardice, the terror of his slow suffocation, and finally the disarming wonder of an empty grave and a living body resurrected from the dead.

As for us, his latter-day disciples, few would deny the magnitude or drama of these events. But how many of us embrace their pain and promise? How many of us, even at Easter, give Christ’s death and resurrection any more attention than the weather?

To observe Lent is to strike at the root of such complacency. 

Lent (literally “springtime”) is a time of preparation, a time to return to the desert where Jesus spent forty trying days readying for his ministry. He allowed himself to be tested, and if we are serious about following him, we will do the same.  Lent should never be morose—an annual ordeal during which we begrudgingly forgo a handful of pleasures. Instead, we ought to approach Lent as an opportunity, not a requirement.  After all, it is meant to be the church’s springtime, a time when, out of the darkness of sin’s winter, a repentant, empowered people emerges. 

Beginning this coming Sunday (February 14) and throughout the season of Lent, there will be daily readings listed in our Sunday bulletin, as well in our weekly email.  Please use these readings as a time of reflection and meditation on your need for Christ.

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