Tuesday, February 20, 2007

Ash Wednesday and Lent

Tomorrow, Christians all over the world will be celebrating Ash Wednesday. It begins a forty-day season of spiritual renewal and preparation that precedes Easter Sunday. The season is called Lent.

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, which is why many churches, including the congregation I serve as pastor, hold special Lenten services on Wednesday nights during this period.

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 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 Jesus Christ.

At our congregation tomorrow 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 a Bible lesson, 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, joyful turning back to God.
As the cross of Christ is marked on our foreheads with ashes from the burned palm fronds used last Palm Sunday, we’re reminded of the words of the burial service: “Earth to earth and dust to dust.” (These are based on God's words to Adam and Eve in Genesis 3:19.) Ashes remind us of our mortality and of our need for 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 over and over again 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 used it to pick 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 and a new life begins.

Just as baptismal water suggests death and brand new life with God...so do the ashes of Ash Wednesday.

If you happen to be in the Cincinnati area tomorrow, I invite you to be with us for Ash Wednesday worship, starting at 7:00PM. For directions, go to our church web site.

[THANKS TO: Andrew Jackson of SmartChristian.com for linking to this post.]

[THANKS ALSO TO: Pat Richardson of The Christian Critical Thinker for linking to this post.]

[THANKS TO: Matt Brown of Good Brownie for linking to this post. I agree with the commenter who there says that Lent isn't really about abstinence, but about spiritual discipline, asking God to help us clear away the debris in our lives that keep us from having a close relationship with Him. Matt is one of my favorite bloggers!]


Deborah White said...


I printed this out for my history-loving daughter, to whom I was unable to adequately explain Ash Wednesday.



Mark Daniels said...

I hope that she finds it helpful. Have a wonderful Lent!

Blessings in Christ,

Deborah White said...

We always look forward to the Wed night Lent services at our church, which are also followed by coffee and small group discussions of scripture. This year the theme is Jesus' parables.

You, too, enjoy a blessed Lent season, Mark!


Matt Brown said...


I realize, of course, that Lent is more than just 40 days of "give up something you should probably live without anyway." It has a much richer meaning than that. It just seems weird that so many of us - and I'm not singling out you Lutherans - pick only a certain time of the year when we give up something and/or make a commitment to do something in order to draw closer to God. Shouldn't this be something that we do much more often than a mere 40 days in Winter? (And let me say that I don't do this sort of thing often - not as often as I should).

As always, your kind words are much appreciated.


Mark Daniels said...

You make a great point about Lent. In fact, I even said something similar in my Ash Wednesday message...If a discipline is worth embracing during the forty days of Lent, then why isn't it worth pursuing all year long. Of course, I think that one of the original ideas behind these Lenten disciplines was to set a pattern to which one would adhere beyond Lent. The trivialization of combatting our own ingrained evil by "giving up" Coca Cola or candy drives me nuts!

(Although if Coke or candy inhibit our relationships with Christ, then by all means, Lent can be a time to begin excising them from our lives.)

Thanks for dropping by and have a great week!

Most Sincerely in Christ,
Mark Daniels