Explaining Ash Wednesday & Lent
Ash Wednesday & Lent are almost here. For some, this is is a familiar season & for others these practices are new. We thought we'd provide some explanations from a variety of sources on the significance and practice of Ash Wednesday & Lent.
From the ACNA Texts for Common Prayer:
Ash Wednesday marks the beginning of the Season of Lent: a time of penitence, fasting and prayer, in preparation for the great Feast of the Resurrection. The season of Lent began in the earliest days of the Church as time of preparation for those seeking to be baptized at the Easter Vigil. The forty days refer to our Lord’s time of fasting in the wilderness; and since Sundays are never fast days, Ash Wednesday is the beginning of the Lenten Fast. Throughout the Old Testament, ashes are used as a sign of sorrow and repentance, and Christians have traditionally used the same to indicate sorrow for our own sin, and as a reminder that the wages of sin is death (Romans 6:23). Like Adam and Eve, we have disobeyed and rebelled against God, and are under the same judgment, “you are dust, and to dust you shall return” (Genesis 3:19b). But as we are marked with ashes in the same manner that we were signed with the cross in Baptism, we are also reminded of the life we share in Jesus Christ, the second Adam (Romans 5:17, 6:4). It is in this sure hope that we begin the journey of these forty days, that by hearing and answering our Savior’s call to repent, we may enter fully into the joyful celebration of his resurrection.
From the Trinity School for Ministry blog:
Ash Wednesday is “about getting honest with ourselves and getting honest with God” said The Rt. Rev. Gary Lillibridge of the Diocese of West Texas at Trinity’s chapel service on March 9th. His encouraging meditations reflected upon the “deep calling” Christians have to be straightforward with God, especially during the season of Lent. “This is a tithe of our year,” he said, a time set aside for reflection upon ourselves and what God has done for us. Moreover, it is a time for growth, a time that creates a bridge between where we are now and where God would like us to be.
Ash Wednesday, a day of fasting, is the first day of Lent in Western Christianity. It occurs 46 days (40 fasting days, if the six Sundays, which are not days of fast, are excluded) before Easter and can fall as early as February 4 or as late as March 10. Ash Wednesday is observed by many Western Christians, including Anglicans, Lutherans, Methodists, Presbyterians, Roman Catholics,[note 1] and some Baptists.
According to the canonical gospels of Matthew, Mark and Luke, Jesus Christ spent 40 days fasting in the desert, where he endured temptation by Satan. Lent originated as a mirroring of this, fasting 40 days as preparation for Easter. Every Sunday was seen as a commemoration of the Sunday of Christ's resurrection and so as a feast day on which fasting was inappropriate. Accordingly, Christians fasted from Monday to Saturday (six days) during six weeks and from Wednesday to Saturday (four days) in the preceding week, thus making up the number of 40 days. Orthodox Christians do this 40 days in a row.
Ash Wednesday derives its name from the practice of blessing ashes made from palm branches blessed on the previous year's Palm Sunday, and placing them on the heads of participants to the accompaniment of the words "Repent, and believe in the Gospel" or "Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return."
Biblical Significance of Ashes
Ashes were used in ancient times to express grief. When Tamar was raped by her half-brother, "she sprinkled ashes on her head, tore her robe, and with her face buried in her hands went away crying" (2 Samuel 13:19). The gesture was also used to express sorrow for sins and faults. In Job 42:3–6, Job says to God: "I have heard of thee by the hearing of the ear: but now mine eye seeth thee. Wherefore I abhor myself, and repent in dust and ashes." The prophet Jeremiah calls for repentance by saying: "O daughter of my people, gird on sackcloth, roll in the ashes" (Jer 6:26). The prophet Daniel recounted pleading to God: "I turned to the Lord God, pleading in earnest prayer, with fasting, sackcloth and ashes" (Daniel 9:3). Just prior to the New Testament period, the rebels fighting for Jewish independence, the Maccabees, prepared for battle using ashes: "That day they fasted and wore sackcloth; they sprinkled ashes on their heads and tore their clothes" (1 Maccabees 3:47; see also 4:39).
Examples of the practice among Jews are found in several other books of the Bible, including Numbers 19:9, 19:17, Jonah 3:6, Book of Esther 4:1, and Hebrews 9:13. Jesus is quoted as speaking of the practice in Matthew 11:21 and Luke 10:13: "If the mighty works done in you had been done in Tyre and Sidon, they would have repented long ago (sitting) in sackcloth and ashes."