We are nearing the season of Lent, a 40-day period of fasting that begins on Ash Wednesday (February 14th) and ends on Easter (excluding Sundays). The 40 days mirror numerous biblical accounts – it rained forty days and forty nights in the flood, Moses spent forty days at the top of Mt. Sinai, Israel wandered in the wilderness for forty years, Elijah was given bread and water by the angel of the Lord but then didn’t eat again during his forty-day journey to Mt. Horeb, Nineveh’s 40 days of repentance before the Lord, and Christ’s 40 days of battling temptation in the wilderness. The tradition behind Lent, then, can be traced back to the early Church, but also back to the Scriptures themselves.
Lent begins with Ash Wednesday, a day that is unknown to some Protestants, even those who may observe Lent. Traditionally, Christians gather for a service of contrition and repentance on Ash Wednesday, typically called a “service of ashes.” Elements of those services differ, but many churches practice the “imposition of ashes” – the applying of ashes in the sign of the cross on the forehead.
Why? The Scriptures repeatedly refer to ashes as a sign of repentance for sin or mourning.
- Esther 4:3 – “And in every province, wherever the king’s command and his decree reached, there was great mourning among the Jews, with fasting and weeping and lamenting, and many of them lay in sackcloth and ashes.”
- Job 42:5-6 – “I had heard of you by the hearing of the ear, but now my eye sees you; therefore I despise myself, and repent in dust and ashes.”
- Jonah 3:4-6 – “Jonah began to go into the city, going a day’s journey. And he called out, ‘Yet forty days, and Nineveh shall be overthrown!’ And the people of Nineveh believed God. They called for a fast and put on sackcloth, from the greatest of them to the least of them. The word reached the king of Nineveh, and he arose from his throne, removed his robe, covered himself with sackcloth, and sat in ashes.”
- Ezekiel 9:4 – “And the Lord said to him, ‘Pass through the city, through Jerusalem, and put a mark on the foreheads of the men who sigh and groan over all the abominations that are committed in it.’”
Note that the “mark” here is literally the tav, a Hebrew letter which in ancient script was written as a cross-shaped letter (tav = “+”). The Church father Tertullian remarked that God had given to Ezekiel “the very form of the cross…”
Of course, the imposition of ashes on the forehead is quite new to many, so we should stress that it is not required, and that an Ash Wednesday service is significant whether or not ashes are applied. Beginning Lent with an Ash Wednesday service…
- Provides encouragement and fellowship with one another as we begin Lent
- Reminds us of the sacrifice of Christ
- Nourishes our souls through the Lord’s Supper
- Calls our minds back to the purpose of fasting
- Helps focus our fasting on Christ, not on our own “suffering” or what we are “giving up”
- Gives us an opportunity to pray for one another
- Allows for a time of focused prayers of repentance and confession
In other words, ashes or not, make time to attend an Ash Wednesday service as you begin the Lenten season. And, as we prepare for Lent, let us ask the Lord to grant us longing hearts; hearts that seek Him above all else – above our own lusts and desires, above our love of self and comfort. For we don’t fast in order to gain favor with God or out of some severe asceticism, but rather to bring to light our struggles with sin and put them to death by His grace and strength. We do it so that we might be reminded of how serious our sins truly are, and that we might lay them before the cross, in preparation for the celebration of resurrection.