Actually, there are more than forty days between Ash Wednesday and Easter. But the Sundays that fall during Lent are never counted as part of that somber season. For Christians, Sundays are always "little Easters," days when the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead is celebrated.
Lent emphasizes other aspects of Christian belief, most especially the need for total surrender to Christ so that the free gifts of forgiveness, eternal life, and purposeful living can be appropriated by those who turn from sin and believe in Christ.
The word Lent is from Middle English and means spring, the season of the year with which Lent somewhat corresponds.
According to Philip H. Pfatteicher and Carlos R. Messerli, writing in a book called Manual on the Liturgy, "Lent [as a season of the Church Year] derives from the [period of] preparation of [adult] candidates for Baptism [in the Church's early history]. By the middle of the fourth century at Jerusalem, candidates for Baptism fasted for 40 days, and during this period...[instructional] lectures...were delivered to them."
Of course, forty is an important number in the Bible. Jesus was tempted in the wilderness for forty days. The Old Testament book of Exodus says that God's people, the Hebrews, wandered in the wilderness for forty years. The rains that produced the great flood recorded in the book of Genesis lasted forty days and forty nights. So, it was natural that Lent would become a forty-day period.
Pfatteicher and Messerli say that after Christian faith was legalized in the Roman Empire in 313 A.D., "the period of preparation for Baptism became a general period of preparation of all Christians for Easter." That continues to this day.
Ash Wednesday itself, say Pfatteicher and Messerli, features a mood of "penitence and reflection on the quality of our faith and life." The goal is to call believers to remember their mortality, dependence on God, and need to seek God's help in disciplining themselves to surrender every part of their lives to Christ.
At our congregation this evening, we'll begin our time of worship together with the singing of Just As I am, Without One Plea, followed by corporate confession, the reading of Bible lessons, and then, the imposition of ashes on the foreheads of the repentant. Each person will receive this sign with the words, “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.”
Ashes, in a Jewish and Christian context, suggest three things:
- judgment and God’s condemnation of sin;
- our total dependence upon God for life; and
- repentance, the joyful turning back to God.
Ashes are also a symbol of cleansing and renewal. This makes sense when you think about it. When I was a boy and would lodge splinters into my hands, I'd go to my dad. Dad inspected things and soon, got a needle from my mom's sewing kit, and pulled out his lighter. He turned the tip of the needle in the flame of the lighter for maybe thirty seconds and after that, wave the needle through the air to cool it off. Then, he picked the splinter out of my hand. Of course, the reason that Dad ran the needle through the flame was to kill off any bacteria that might cause infection.
In the Greek of the New Testament, the word for fire is pur, from which we get such English words as purge, pure, and purify, among others. When we open ourselves to letting Jesus Christ be in charge of our lives, He begins to purge us of all the old, destructive habits that previously blocked God's presence from our lives and He creates a place of purity where He can live with us and transform our lives. The old life is burnt away and a new life begins.
Just as baptismal water suggests death and brand new life with God...so do the ashes of Ash Wednesday.
[This is a piece I wrote several years ago. I hope you find it helpful.]