I thought Ash Wednesday and Lent were Catholic/Orthodox observances?
Do other churches recognize/observe these?
Are they scriptural?
What is ‘Ash Wednesday’ anyway?
I will try to give some information that will help you understand why we observe the season of Lent, and along with it, Ash Wednesday.
Let’s start with the last question first: What is Ash Wednesday?
In the Western Christian calendar, Ash Wednesday is the first day of Lent and occurs 46 days (40 days not counting Sundays) before Easter. Ash Wednesday falls on a different date each year because it is dependent on the date of Easter.
Ash Wednesday derives its name from the practice of placing ashes on the foreheads of adherents as a sign of repentance. The ashes used are often from the Palm branches from the previous year's Palm Sunday. These ashes are mixed with oil or water (in some churches the oil and water have spiritual significance as well); this paste is then used by the minister who presides at the service to make the sign of the cross on the forehead of the people.
This is called the "imposition of ashes." This act echoes the ancient Near Eastern tradition of throwing ashes over one's head to signify repentance before God (as related in many texts in the Bible). The priest or minister says one of the following when applying the ashes:
“Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return” (Genesis 3:19).
“The kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe the good news” (Mark 1:15).
Are Ash Wednesday and Lent scriptural?
To answer this, we also need to know what the season of Lent is about. The word, “Lent” comes from an old Anglo-Saxon word for ‘spring’ (lencten) which may refer to the lengthening of days at that time of year. As mentioned above, Lent is the season before Easter, and by the 4th century A.D. it was established as 40 days to reflect the 40 days Moses spend on Mount Sinai (receiving the Ten Commandments) and the 40 days that Jesus fasted and prayed in the wilderness before he began his ministry.
Lent is a season of fasting, praying and self-reflection to prepare for the celebration of Easter. When God redeems us in Christ, one of his goals is the transformation of our lives…this is certainly a scriptural theme and goal! God pours his grace and power into our lives to make our lives meaningful and fruitful.
But this also requires something from us; we must respond to grace with discipline and focus. New habits don’t happen without effort. Lent is an opportunity to cooperate with God’s grace as we discipline ourselves, with the result being changed lives that make a positive difference in our place in the world. We can truly celebrate Easter because our lives are a living witness to the power of God to change the world; we have experienced resurrection, even here and now!
Ash Wednesday is a day of repentance and it marks the beginning of Lent. Ashes were used in ancient times, according to the Bible, to express mourning. Dusting oneself with ashes was the penitent's way of expressing sorrow for sins and faults. An ancient example of one expressing one’s penitence is found in Job 42:3-6. Job says to God:
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.
The prophet Jeremiah, for example, calls for repentance this way (Jer. 6:26):
O my poor people, put on sackcloth, and roll in ashes…
The prophet Daniel pleaded for God this way (Daniel 9:3):
I turned to the Lord God, pleading in earnest prayer,
with fasting, sackcloth and ashes.
Lent also reflects and mirrors the 40-day period of preparation by Jesus for his ministry, which he prepared for in the desert through fasting and prayer. During this time he was tempted (see Matthew 4:1-11, Mark 1:12-13, and Luke 4:1-13). While not specifically instituted in the Bible, the 40-day period of repentance is also analogous to the 40 days during which Moses repented and fasted in response to the making of the golden calf.
So Lent can be a positive experience of spiritual growth and maturity for us. And Ash Wednesday is the kick-off of our Lenten “discipline”. On Ash Wednesday we gather and remember our finite nature (“you are dust and to dust you shall return”), but also our potential for transformation as disciples of Christ (“repent, and believe the good news”).
We also gather together for worship on Ash Wednesday to remind us that we are part of a body, a family, a community of faith. This goes against the grain of our selfish, individualistic culture, which tells us to go it alone, compete with those around us (rather than cooperate), and work our way to the front of the line or the top of the hill (instead of serving others as Christ served). In every way we will have to discipline ourselves and struggle against the old nature and the messages of our culture.
Gathering for worship on Ash Wednesday is a powerful symbol of all these truths, and a means of God pouring out his grace to us as we confess our sins and sinfulness, and seek to live a new life that is possible through God’s grace and power at work in us.
I look forward to seeing you next Wednesday (March 9) at 7:00 p.m. to begin our Lenten discipline together. And I hope you will add to the effectiveness of that discipline by joining us in our Lenten Study each Sunday, “24 Hours that Changed the World.” There are classes every Sunday during Lent at 7:45 a.m., 9:00 a..m., and 10:30 a.m.
Make this Lenten season 40 days that will definitely change your life and your world!