What is Lent?
The Lenten season has been observed throughout the church's history. It starts with Ash Wednesday, which marks the beginning of 40 days (minus Sundays) leading up to the crucifixion of Jesus. Lent is a season of preparation and anticipation. It is a time to reflect on the brokenness of our world and a time to repent for the brokenness in our lives. It is also a time to look ahead to the day when all things will be made new. It climaxes on Holy Week with Jesus being placed in the dark tomb and rising again to launch God’s worldwide project of making the world the right.
What occurs during Lent?
Lent is a season of fasting - giving up food, luxuries, vices, or even some of our time - to experience more of God’s love. It is also a season of repentance, which means to re-think things. It is a time to reflect on the fleeting nature of life and to consider what is really driving our lives.
What is the deal with the ashes?
Ashes have long been a symbolic part of Biblical worship. They were a sign of sorrow and mourning (2 Sam. 13v19, Is. 61v3, Jer. 6v26, Ez. 27v30). They were also an act of repentance and turning toward God's face. Daniel says that he "turned [his] face to the Lord God, seeking him by prayer and pleas for mercy with fasting and sackcloth and ashes" (Dan. 9v3). Jesus uses ashes symbolically to speak of repentance (Matthew 11v21).
As with all spiritual practices, the practices themselves are not the point; the practices point to Jesus. So how can Ash Wednesday, point us to Jesus?
- Let it be an act of humility. Make yourself low before the Lord Almighty, the One who formed us from the dust.
- Let it be a confession of mortality. The psalmist urges us to "number our days", to remember that we have limits, that we are finite, that we shall one day return to the dust (Ps. 90:3, 12). Kneel before the "Lord our God our Maker" (Ps. 95:6).
- Let it be a time to repent. We do not confess our sins to make God gracious; we confess because we have found that God is gracious. We turn away from self-reliance and self-destruction, and we turn toward the God whose nail-pierced hands are ever and always open to us. Repentance is not about shaming us; it's about making us whole.
- Let it be a time to receive God's grace. When we humble ourselves, we find we are met by God's grace (James 4:6).
You don't have to observe Ash Wednesday, but it is a beautiful way to join with the people of God and humbly repent and seek God's face.