The Season of Lent
This past Wednesday was Ash Wednesday, marking the beginning of Lent – that 40 day period (not counting Sundays) that lead to Easter, and the celebration of Jesus' resurrection. By the fourth century the Church connected the 40 days of Lent to Jesus' 40 days of fasting in the wilderness at the beginning of His ministry.
At one time Lent was primarily viewed as a period during which converts prepared for baptism on Easter Sunday, but later the season became a general time of penitence and renewal for all Christians. Some of the themes of Lent include: meditating on our mortality, sinfulness, and need of a Savior; renewing our commitment to daily repentance in the Lenten season and in all of life; remembering with confidence and gratitude that Christ has conquered evil and death for us. Lent reminds us of the value of spiritual disciplines such as prayer and fasting and self-denial, and of the importance of our daily dying to sin and rising to new life with Christ.
During this Lenten season I will post various meditations on these Lenten themes.
Today let's think about the significance of ashes in Christian tradition. The placing of ashes on one's forehead is often a central part of Ash Wednesday worship. Early in my ministry I did not do the "ashes on peoples' foreheads" thing! I wasn't very liturgically minded as a pastor, and I thought that's what Catholics and Episcopalians do! But later on I came to embrace this practice and make it part of our Ash Wednesday worship.
Ashes have a long history in the Bible and in church tradition. In Scripture ashes symbolize frailty or death (Genesis 18:27), sadness or mourning (Esther 4:3), judgment (Lamentations 3:16), and repentance (Jonah 3:6). Some traditions also have considered ash to be a purifying or cleansing agent. All of these images are caught up in the church's use of ashes as a symbol appropriate for Lent.
The ashes placed on one's forehead are in the shape of a cross, thus marking the person as a follower of Jesus.
Frankly, over the years, the Ash Wednesday services I've conducted have not been well attended. It's probably even more the case as our American society becomes more secularized and unchurched. But I think there's much to be said for making Lent a special time to focus on Christ and His sufferings, and on our commitment to be a follower of this Jesus. Ashes on the forehead can have a special meaning as a visible sign that we are striving to follow Jesus in all we do.
So, even if you missed the ashes this past Wednesday, you can visualize yourself with an ash shaped cross on your forehead, marking you as a follower of Christ. It's "living the life" and not being ashamed of being a Jesus follower that's most important.