Today is Wednesday. For many, it is just like any other Wednesday, "Hump Day," the work week is half over, Friday is a'coming! But, for some, this Wednesday is not like any other Wednesday of the year. It is Ash Wednesday - a day marked (literally) with ashes.
Most of those who recognize today as Ash Wednesday will be people who are associated with certain faith communities like Catholics, Anglican, Lutherans, Presbyterians, and United Methodists. For these followers of Christ, Ash Wednesday begins a season, known as Lent, that isn't so celebratory. Quite the contrary, it is a period that seeks to expose the dirt and grime that has accumulated in our lives. It is a holy time.
As you venture out into the world today, you may see a smudge on the foreheads of some of these folks. No, they are probably not people of poor hygiene manners, rather they have engaged in a ancient ritual. They bear the mark of a cross imposed with ashes as a sign of repentance. This practice has been a part of the Christian heritage since the beginning, and even further than that. Even before the time of Jesus, the people of God often used ashes as a sign of repentance. As the people of Nineveh heeded the call to penitence by the prophet Job, the king called for all the people to wear sackcloth and sit in ashes. The prophet Jeremiah calls on the people to roll in ashes as a sign of their penitence. While some today may have to explain why they sport the ashened cross on the forehead, it is definitely easier to resolve with one's employer than sitting in an ash heap while on the job!
Yet, what's the deal with Ash Wednesday and Lent? Why does any of this matter? It comes down to preparing ourselves to the miracle of Easter.
Today, as stated earlier, is As Wednesday. It is the first day of the season of Lent, which marks forty days (not including Sundays) until Easter. The ashes that are imposed on foreheads today are traditionally from the palm fronds of the previous year's Palm Sunday, which are burnt and mixed with oil to make the dust.
Ashes remind us of several things. First, they remind us of our sin. What better sign can illustrate the state of a sinful soul than to be stained with dirt. Even Adam probably was taken aback when God told him after his his willful disobedience, "From dust you were brought, and to dust you will return." There is no denying that we have messed up when the evidence is so apparent.
Thus, the imposition of ashes call us to confess our sins, repent, and return to God. We do not like to confess that we have messed up. We think we can hide our mistakes. We often try and succeed in masking our sins from others. We can put on a holy mask, but God sees beyond the mask, even beyond the flesh. God sees the state of the soul. When we "impose" ashes on our foreheads, we are reminded of how our mortality "imposes" itself on us. We can try to ignore it, but at some point in time, mortality will catch up to us. So, ashes mark us as recognizing that we are not as pure as we would like for others, even God, to think. It reminds us of who we really are - sinners in need of a Saviour.
Yet, for all what may seem to be negative connotations about ashes, they also have a therapeutic effect as well. Ashes can also be a cleansing agent. In the absence of soap, ashes were often used to cleanse with in the ancient world. Thus, as a head is marked with an ashened cross, it may also serve to remind of our baptism. Even the simple act of the imposition of ashes starkly reminds us of the unmerited love of God.
Ash Wednesday marks the beginning of the season of Lent. This period of forty days (not including Sundays) is a time of prayer, confession, and introspection of life. During this season, many people engage in the ancient practice of fasting (giving something up) as an exercise in spiritual discipline. For centuries, Christians abstained from eating meat and dairy during this period. The Christian author of the Second Century C.E., Tertullian, embraced this practice of an essentially vegan diet as he related it to Daniel's diet as he was in the king's court. Daniel abstained form the rich foods and meat that was available, yet he grew stronger than those who indulged. The vestiges of this practice is still seen today through the celebration of Mardi Gras (Fat Tuesday). Traditionally, this day marks the last day before Lent begins and those who engage in this type of fasting would basically party as they used up all of the dairy and fat in their kitchens. Some would do this by making pancakes as they used up all of the lard.
In our modern culture, many people today look for some other method of fasting or abstaining from some habit. Some will abstain from drinking alcohol, smoking, eating candy. Some also would further the fast to forever abstain from what they saw as an indulgence that hampered their spiritual growth. In recent years, some Christians have relegated the act of "giving something up" and instead "take something on," that being some holy practice.
So, for forty days, Christians introspectively seeking to grow closer to God would fast. The exception to the fast is Sundays. There is a reason that Sundays are not counted in the forty days of Lent. Sundays are viewed as "mini Easters," days of celebrating the resurrection of Jesus. Thus, seen as celebrations, fasts would be broken for that day.
For some, Lenten practices such as fasting seem to be antiquated and have little use in modern day culture. Yet, such opinions seem to not be fully grounded in a proper understanding of the season. Lenten disciplines serve to train and equip us as they strengthen our spirits. If Lenten disciplines were compared to the rigors of physical exercise, one may understand that like physical exercise, these practices not only develops routines that are beneficial, but also makes one stronger when faced with a myriad of circumstances.
Finally, the season of Lent prepares us for Easter. Without Lent, Easter becomes a day of new Spring clothes, chocolate, and colored eggs. Lent reminds us of death - our death -our death that has resulted from our flagrant disregard of God and our bent to sin. Lent reminds us that we came from dust and to dust we will return. Lent reminds us of the trial, the persecution, the execution of our LORD Jesus as he died our death. Lent reminds us that there can be no high without a low, no lofty mountaintop without a deep valley. Lent reminds us there can be no resurrection without death. Without Lent, Easter Sunday fails to properly proclaim the extent of God's undying grace at the mouth of an empty grave.