Some thoughts on Lent and Ash Wednesday:
In the early church, the season leading up to Easter was always a time of training and discipling those who were preparing for baptism. Sometime around the 4th century, the season of Lent expanded to include the whole community of believers. The body of Christ, corporately, committed to renew their willingness to follow Jesus on his journey to the cross on their behalf.
The word “Lent” literally means “springtime”…a time of preparation and cleansing and planting in anticipation of a coming harvest. Lent is an opportunity not a requirement. It is meant to be the church’s springtime, a time when out of the darkness of sin’s winter, a repentant, empowered people rise up. Lent spans 40 days over several weeks excluding Sundays (Jesus was in the desert 40 days) beginning on Ash Wednesday (February 18th) and concluding at Easter.
It makes sense to me that we would enter into springtime with an introspective evening. That’s Ash Wednesday. Ash Wednesday is the name given to the first day of the season of Lent, in which the Pastor applies ashes to the foreheads of Christians to signify an inner repentance. In a typical Ash Wednesday service, the congregation is invited to the altar where a pastor applies ashes to the forehead of each person in the shape of the cross saying, “For dust you are and to dust you shall return” (Genesis 3:19). This is of course what God spoke to Adam and Eve after they had eaten the forbidden fruit and fallen into sin. In the context of the Ash Wednesday service, the ashes remind each person of their sinfulness and mortality, and, thus, their need to repent and “get right with God.” The shape of the cross reminds each person of the good news that through Christ crucified there is forgiveness for all sins, all guilt, and all punishment.
Ash Wednesday, like the season of Lent, is never mentioned in Scripture and is not commanded by God. Christians are free to either observe or not observe it. It also should be obvious that the imposition of ashes, like other external spiritual practices, are meaningless, even hypocritical, unless there is a real inner repentance and change of behavior. That’s the point made in Isaiah 58:5-7 when God says,
“Is this the kind of fast I have chosen, only a day for a man to humble himself? Is it only for bowing one’s head like a reed and for lying on sackcloth and ashes ? Is that what you call a fast, a day acceptable to the LORD? 6 “Is not this the kind of fasting I have chosen: to loose the chains of injustice and untie the cords of the yoke, to set the oppressed free and break every yoke? 7 Is it not to share your food with the hungry and to provide the poor wanderer with shelter– when you see the naked, to clothe him, and not to turn away from your own flesh and blood?”
With this in mind, however, I still recommend the imposition of ashes on Ash Wednesday to our community as a great opportunity for repentance and spiritual renewal within the framework of confession and the forgiveness of sins.