I have practiced Lent off and on through my adult life, starting in college. However, it wasn't until the last ten years or so that I began to search more deeply for a meaningful expression of this holy time, set apart from the rest of the church year.
So now let's turn to Lent and how we may use these 40 days to live and love in His power and for the glory of His Holy Name....
Today is Shrove Tuesday, the day before Ash Wednesday and the beginning of Lent. The name comes from the word “shriving,” which means confession. In the first few centuries of the church, Shrove Tuesday was a happy, relaxed festival with good food, games, and fun. However, starting in the fourth century, the celebrations of Shrovetide turned into riots, revelry, drunkenness, weird,wild dancing, and general disorder better known as “Mardi Gras” which means “Fat Tuesday.”
Martha Zimmerman states, “It is obvious that our enemy has set another trap to distract us from the truth. Not many people confess their sins while they are drunk and dancing.... Why not recover a significant Christian family night?”
The traditional food for Shrove Tuesday is pancakes. Why? Because Lent used to require strict fasting from all dairy and eggs (and still does in Eastern Orthodox traditions), families would use up the last of their milk, butter, and eggs by making pancakes the night before Lent began. Our family will be having a pancake supper tonight while we discuss more about Lent, the value of confession, and our relationships with Jesus.
Simply, Ash Wednesday is the First Day of Lent, the 40 days preceding the Resurrection of our Lord and Saviour (not counting Sundays which are always celebrations of the Resurrection of Christ all year long). Ash Wednesday and Lent are currently practiced in the Roman Catholic, Anglican/Episcopalian, Presbyterian, Methodist, Disciples of Christ, and Lutheran denominations, and by a few Baptist, non-denominational, and evangelical churches as well. In case you're interested, the Evangelical Free Church denomination is derived from the Scandinavian Lutheran Church (Price, Matthew A. and Michael Collins. The Story of Christianity . Wheaton IL: Tyndale, 1999; page 145).
Ash Wednesday is a somber day of reflection on what God wants to change in our lives to conform us more closely to His Son, Jesus. We are to seek God's heart in our lives, praying for Him to clean out the dark, hidden corners of our lives, bringing His healing light forth to forgive us and cleanse us of all unrighteousness (1 John 1:9). We go forth on this day, either in a church setting or at home (we've done this at home many years) to receive ashes in the shape of a cross on our foreheads, God marking us with the symbol of Christ's suffering and resurrection, marking us as His own children, branding us as the sheep of His flock.
The symbolism of ashes is ancient. Recorded in the Old Testament and continuing down through the centuries, priests have sprinkled ashes from burnt sacrifices over the people. So what do ashes signify in Scripture? In Genesis 18:27, Abraham reminds us, “I am nothing but dust and ashes” (NIV). Job repeats the same idea when he states, “I am reduced to dust and ashes” (Job 30:19, NIV). Ashes were used as a sign of sorrow and genuine regret. God's message to Ninevah, delivered by Jonah, confronted their disobedience. When the king heard of the coming destruction, he “covered himself with sackcloth, and sat on the ashes” (Jonah 3:6, NASB) as a sign of repentance.
Historically, the ashes used in the Ash Wednesday service symbolize the need for repentance and a change of heart. The focus is on preparing our hearts to truly celebrate the Resurrection of Jesus Christ. In addition to individual repentance, many church leaders see Ash Wednesday as a time for the church to repent and prepare together. In Matthew 11, Christ denounces the cities in which many of His miracles has been performed because they did NOT repent “in sackcloth and ashes” (v. 21).
A symbol of humility before God and of sorrow for death that sin brings into this world, ashes are also signs that we are all in this sin business together, whether our sins are public and notorious or are carefully hidden from the world beneath a facade of holiness, yet not, according the the Scriptures, less grievous to the heart of God. Ashes show that the difference between the good in us and the sinful in us is sometimes frightfully thin. We all so often fall short of the Faith we claim. We have treated people as things and we have treated things as if they were more valuable than people. And so we look into our hearts and pray the Scriptures: “Create in me a clean heart, O God, and create a right spirit within me” (Psalm 51).
The ashes placed upon our foreheads each Ash Wednesday are usually from the palm fronds brought to the last year's Palm Sunday service, saved all year, and burned on the Sunday before Ash Wednesday. The ashes used in the Anglican church we attend on weekdays have been combined with ashes over 150 years old – the sins of 150 years forgiven by our Lord.
Dr. Richard P. Bucher, pastor of Our Redeemer Lutheran Church in Kentucky, writes:
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. But what is the history and the meaning of this Christian holy day?Dr. John Armstrong, former pastor and church planter, now adjunct professor at Wheaton Graduate School and founder of Act 3 Ministries, wrote the following on his blog last Ash Wednesday (in 2009):
Ash Wednesday, originally called dies cinerum (day of ashes) is mentioned in the earliest copies of the Gregorian Sacramentary, and probably dates from at least the 8th Century.... Throughout the Middle Ages. ashes were sprinkled on the head, rather than anointed on the forehead as in our day.
… [T]he pouring of ashes on one's body (and dressing in sackcloth, a very rough material) as an outer manifestation of inner repentance or mourning is an ancient practice. It is mentioned several times in the Old Testament. What is probably the earliest occurrence is found at the very end of the book of Job. Job, having been rebuked by God, confesses, "Therefore I despise myself and repent in dust and ashes" (Job 42:6). Other examples are found in 2 Samuel 13:19, Esther 4:1,3, Isaiah 61:3, Jeremiah 6:26, Ezekiel 27:30, and Daniel 9:3. In the New Testament, Jesus alludes to the practice in Matthew 11:21: "Woe to you, Korazin! Woe to you, Bethsaida! If the miracles that were performed in you had been performed in Tyre and Sidon, they would have repented long ago in sackcloth and ashes."
In the typical Ash Wednesday observance, Christians are invited to the altar to receive the imposition of ashes, prior to receiving the holy Supper. The Pastor applies ashes in the shape of the cross on the forehead of each, while speaking the words, "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 eaten of the forbidden fruit and fallen into sin. These words indicated to our first parents the bitterest fruit of their sin, namely death. In the context of the Ash Wednesday imposition of ashes, they remind each penitent of their sinfulness and mortality, and, thus, their need to repent and get right with God before it is too late. The cross reminds each penitent of the good news that through Jesus Christ crucified there is forgiveness for all sins, all guilt, and all punishment.
Many Christians choose to leave the ashes on their forehead for the remainder of the day, not to be showy and boastful (see Matthew 6:16-18). Rather, they do it as a witness that all people are sinners in need of repentance AND that through Jesus all sins are forgiven through faith.
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 similar external practices, are meaningless, even hypocritical, unless there is a corresponding inner repentance and change of behavior. This is made clear 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, the rite of ashes on Ash Wednesday is heartily recommended to the Christian as a grand opportunity for repentance and spiritual renewal within the framework of confession and absolution.
God tells His people to rend their hearts, not their garments (Joel 2:13). The gift of this day is one of personal reflection, a time of confession, a time to change and to face our certain death with hope. Today begins a journey of hope that leads to Calvary and Easter. From facade to faith, we sanctify a fast (Joel 2:15) thus seeking to address our voracious consumption by following a new path of self-denial and grace.Martha Zimmerman suggests a family activity in which we each write on a slip of paper a “besetting sin,” one we wish to confess and ask God's help in conquering. Crumple and gather these papers, then burn them in a fireplace or in a safe way. As the papers burn, remind your family of God's offer to cast away our sins in Isaiah 44:22: “I have swept away your offenses like a cloud, your sins like the morning mist. Return to me, for I have redeemed you.” In your family, you may wish to mark crosses on the back of your hands or on the traditional place on the foreheads. When we choose to wear ashes, we signify our desire to make outwardly visible what is taking place inwardly in our hearts. At the end of the day, the ashes are washed off, reminding us of Christ's cleansing us from our sins.
The smudge of ashes placed on my forehead in the sign of the cross reminded me that I will die. I belong to Christ and He is my only hope in life and in death. Such symbols of piety can be transformed into masks that hide the real me from the world behind a prideful religious facade. But the sign of the cross, made with ash, can also be a powerful reminder, in my own human flesh, of the grace of God.
Many of the elements of both Ash Wednesday and Lent are expressed in one verse, Daniel 9:3: “I turned to the Lord God and pleaded with him in prayer and petition, in fasting, and in sackcloth and ashes.”
Lent is a season of hope. With ashes on our foreheads and hope in our hearts, we go forth to love and serve in His strength and with His love. For by God's grace in Christ Jesus, we do not have to stay the way we are. As Pastor Stephen often says, “God loves us just the way we are, but He loves us too much to let us stay that way.” Lent is a time set apart, a holy time, to allow God to have His way with us in a deliberate, focused way so that we may indeed step forth, ready to live, love, and serve in His Holy Name. Ash Wednesday opens the door to the 40-day season of Lent, a process of preparation for Holy Week.
Dr. Dennis Bratcher of Christian Resource Institute, based in the Church of the Nazarene, writes in an article called “The Season of Lent”:
The season of Lent has not been well observed in much of evangelical Christianity, largely because it was associated with "high church" liturgical worship that some churches were eager to reject. However, much of the background of evangelical Christianity, for example the heritage of John Wesley, was very "high church." Many of the churches that had originally rejected more formal and deliberate liturgy are now recovering aspects of a larger Christian tradition as a means to refocus on spirituality in a culture that is increasingly secular.
Originating in the fourth century of the church, the season of Lent spans 40 weekdays beginning on Ash Wednesday and climaxing during Holy Week with Holy Thursday (Maundy Thursday), Good Friday, and concluding Saturday before Easter. Originally, Lent was the time of preparation for those who were to be baptized, a time of concentrated study and prayer before their baptism at the Easter Vigil, the celebration of the Resurrection of the Lord early on Easter Sunday. But since these new members were to be received into a living community of Faith, the entire community was called to preparation. Also, this was the time when those who had been separated from the Church would prepare to rejoin the community.
Today, Lent is marked by a time of prayer and preparation to celebrate Easter. Since Sundays celebrate the resurrection of Jesus, the six Sundays that occur during Lent are not counted as part of the 40 days of Lent, and are referred to as the Sundays in Lent. The number 40 is connected with many biblical events, but especially with the forty days Jesus spent in the wilderness preparing for His ministry by facing the temptations that could lead him to abandon his mission and calling. Christians today use this period of time for introspection, self examination, and repentance. This season of the year is equal only to the Season of Advent in importance in the Christian year, and is part of the second major grouping of Christian festivals and sacred time that includes Holy Week, Easter, and Pentecost.
Lent has traditionally been marked by penitential prayer, fasting, and [giving]. Some churches today still observe a rigid schedule of fasting on certain days during Lent, especially the giving up of meat, alcohol, sweets, and other types of food. Other traditions do not place as great an emphasis on fasting, but focus on charitable deeds, especially helping those in physical need with food and clothing, or simply the giving of money to charities. Most Christian churches that observe Lent at all focus on it as a time of prayer, especially repentance, repenting for failures and sin as a way to focus on the need for God’s grace. It is really a preparation to celebrate God’s marvelous redemption at Easter, and the resurrected life that we live, and hope for, as Christians.
Lent, which comes from the Germanic word for “springtime,” can be viewed as a spiritual spring cleaning: a time for taking a spiritual inventory then cleaning out those things which hinder our relationship with Jesus Christ and our love and service with Him. Lent is really a time of revival in liturgical churches as God's people prepare to celebrate the Resurrection with depth and significance. Our Lenten disciplines are to ultimately transform our entire person: body, soul, and spirit and help us become more like Christ, not in our own power, but in His. Eastern Christians call this process theosis which Saint Athanasius describes as “becoming by grace what God is by nature.”
For the first 300 years of the Church, the Resurrection was the only feast Christians celebrated. So spiritual preparation for this special Feast was and is very important, especially as the Resurrection Celebration was (and remains to this day in liturgical churches) a time to prepare Christians for baptism. During these first centuries of the Church, just a day or two of prayerful preparation for the Church as a whole was set aside; the full 40 days of Lent was not practiced until the early fourth century. The focus of Lent is spiritual renewal through the disciplines of fasting and prayer, study and giving.
Fasting – Fasting can be not only from certain foods but also from activities that may distract us from our relationship with Christ, including television, computers, video games, etc. The time spent on these activities should be turned into time with God: in prayer, in His Word, in reading spiritual books, in fellowship, prayer, and study with other believers. Lent represents a time of spiritual training that can aid us, with Christ's help, “to overcome evil with good” (Romans 12:21). In Lent we are able to learn, examine, and get under control our material excesses that can lead us away from God. Remember, Lent is not a diet; Lent is about spiritual results, not material ones. While losing a few pounds may be a nice side benefit, all fasting should be done for the glory of God and spiritual growth.
Prayer – Lent is an excellent time to develop or strengthen a discipline of daily prayer. Focus not only on intercession but on the ACTS model of Adoration, Confession, Thanksgiving, and Supplication. I like praying through the Book of Psalms during Lent, praying two in the morning and two at night (and using Psalm 119 as a whole day's worth). I also like praying through the Gospel of John during Lent – not just reading it but truly, truly praying it and about it.
Scripture Reading – When facing temptation in the desert (the basis for the 40 days of Lent), Jesus relied on Scripture to counter the wiles of the devil. As we well know, God's Word is also a formidable weapon for us as well – it's the “sword of the Spirit,” the only offensive weapon mentioned in Ephesians 6. If you aren't in the habit of daily Scripture reading and meditation, or if your children are not yet, Lent is an excellent time to develop the discipline and joy of reading God's Word daily. It is said that it takes 21 days to develop a good habit, and Lent provides us with almost twice that amount of time to develop godly habits of daily prayer, daily Scripture reading, memorizing His Word, and listening to God in His Word and in prayer. If you have already established this discipline, perhaps use Lent to deeply study a certain book of the Bible would be an excellent idea.
Giving – Lent is not just about “giving something up”; it's about putting something positive in its place. The best way to remove a vice is to cultivate a virtue. Lent has been a traditional time of helping the poor and doing acts of love and mercy. While as Christians, we have this calling to giving all year long, Lent is a good time to examine ways to get involved and to make resolutions to actually do them. Perhaps Lent is time to get involved with God's Extended Hand if you aren't already. Or do something as a family to raise funds for a missionary or a Christian charity helping in Haiti like Samaritan's Purse.
Obviously, Lent is NOT the only time we can practice these spiritual disciplines; we should indeed be practicing them all year long. But Lent presents us the opportunity to do a “deep cleaning,” to focus more fully and completely on weak areas of our spiritual walk. Prayer before Lent begins is very important, asking God to reveal to us where He wants to work on our hearts during this year's Lent.
Dr. Bratcher continues in another part of the above article, “Reflections on Lent” reflects on the value of Lent:
But it is too easy and promotes too cheap a grace to focus only on the high points of Palm Sunday and Easter without walking with Jesus through the darkness of Good Friday, a journey that begins on Ash Wednesday. Lent is a way to place ourselves before God humbled, bringing in our hands no price whereby we can ourselves purchase our salvation. It is a way to confess our total inadequacy before God, to strip ourselves bare of all pretenses to righteousness, to come before God in dust and ashes. It is a way to empty ourselves of our false pride, of our rationalizations that prevent us from seeing ourselves as needy creatures, of our "perfectionist" tendencies that blind us to the beam in our own eyes.If you have little ones at home, Martha Zimmerman suggests a tradition starting in the 5th century: the making of “little breads” of flour, water, and salt (nothing from the fasting list!) rolled and twisted to represent arms crossed over the chest in prayer, the traditional prayer pose of that time. These twisted breads were called “little arms” at first, and the Germans gave them the name we know them by now: pretzels. Pretzels provide a visual reminder that Lent is to be a period of prayer and fasting.
Through prayer that gives up self, we seek to open ourselves up before God, and to hear anew the call "Come unto me!" We seek to recognize and respond afresh to God’s presence in our lives and in our world. We seek to place our needs, our fears, our failures, our hopes, our very lives in God’s hands, again. And we seek by abandoning ourselves in Jesus’ death to recognize again who God is, to allow His transforming grace to work in us once more, and to come to worship Him on Easter Sunday with a fresh victory and hope that goes beyond the new clothes, the Spring flowers, the happy music.
But it begins in ashes. And it journeys though darkness. It is a spiritual pilgrimage that I am convinced we must make one way or the other for genuine spiritual renewal to come. I have heard the passage in 2 Chronicles 7:14 quoted a lot: ". . .if my people who are called by my name humble themselves, and pray and seek my face, and turn from their wicked ways, then I will hear from heaven, and will forgive their sin and heal their land." This usually is quoted in the context of wanting revival or renewal in the church, and the prayer is interpreted as intercessory prayer for others. But a careful reading of the passage will reveal that the prayer that is called for here is not intercessory prayer for others; it is penitential prayer for the faith community, for us. It is not to call for others to repent; it is a call for us, God’s people, to repent. It is our land that needs healed, it is our wicked ways from which we need to turn, we are the ones who need to seek God’s face....
O Lord, begin with me. Here. Now.
Lent is a season that reminds us to repent and ask God to re-center our lives around Him, with our priorities straight and our hearts forgiven and cleansed. Yes, we should do so each day of the year. But sin is an insidious thing, slipping in here, taking a little ground there, and, wrapped up in our busy lives, we often do not notice the darkness creeping further and further into our souls. Ash Wednesday and Lent provide us with a time set apart to present ourselves before God, asking His help and guidance in doing a “spiritual spring cleaning,” a fresh chance to say “Yes” to the Lover of our Souls who created us, who made us in His own image. Lent is the time for a restoration project that will reveal the beauty of God's design for us, demonstrating yet again for us, a forgetful and leaky people, the scale, proportion, and priorities intended for us by our Maker.