The Meaning of Ash Wednesday and Lent

(This is my sermon for Ash Wednesday 2017)

What is Lent? The word simply means spring. It is a roughly 40 day period that leads from Ash Wednesday to Holy Week, as we walk with Jesus toward the cross. It is a time of self-examination and repentance. The church traditionally participates in prayer, fasting, and almsgiving. Such a time is a little scary to protestants, who seem to fear returning to their catholic roots. It is also more and more counter cultural to believe in anything called sin that we may need to repent from. How depressing an idea? That idea does not have the beauty or the marketability of the Christmas message.I want to take a few minutes to develop for you what Lent is all about, and why we do this odd tradition with ashes. I am not just interested in understanding the traditions. More than that, I think it is critical for your soul that a Lenten spirituality be a part of your faith walk.

The Bible itself does not describe or prescribe the practice of Lent. However, the season is full of biblical images and themes.

The idea of 40 days of preparation is all over the Bible. Moses spent 40 days on Mount Sinai. Elijah spent 40 days and nights walking to Mount Horeb. Noah was in the rain for 40 days. Jonah prophesied that Nineveh would fall in 40 days. The Israelites wandered 40 years in the desert. Jesus fasted for 40 days in the wilderness at the beginning of his ministry. It has even been argued that Jesus laid in the tomb for 40 hours.

Many of these experiences of 40 included prayer and fasting. By prayer, I mean more than grace. I mean talking to and listening to God. Sharing your heart and seeking to understand God’s heart.

Fasting is something that Protestants and Americans don’t like. I would guess that for many of us, the only time we have ever fasted is when our doctor told us we had to before a test or procedure. We do love our food, don’t we? The point, however, is not to starve ourselves of food. The point is self-denial. It is denying ourselves some of the things we want or think we need. In doing so, we acknowledge that our relationship with Christ is what we really long for. This works especially well with fasting our food or certain foods, because when we get hungry or we crave that certain thing, we are reminded to pray to God. But this could also be done with TV or social media, or certain stores, or certain habits. We deny ourselves to focus on our need for Jesus.

This kind of self-denial is also meant to slow us down so that we can take a look in the mirror of our souls. Often, we stay busy so that we don’t have to face our own sin. Lent calls us to self-reflection. We are to see that we are sinners, there are things that we are still a slave to. We do wrong things and think worse things.

Lent is not just a season to leave things behind. It can also be a season of taking up new things or replacing bad things. Many choose new devotions, better Bible reading habits, or new forms of prayer as a part of their Lenten spirituality.

But the period is not totally self-centered. There is also the practice of almsgiving. This means acts of pity or mercy. In can mean giving financially to another. It can also mean serving others or providing for others. Yet even in almsgiving we see our own sin. We recognize that we have so much that we could have done for others.

This leads us to probably the most important word of Lent—Repentance. Repentance is not simply saying, “I’m sorry.” To repent is to relent. It is to give up your opinion or position and turn the other way.

This is where the symbol of ashes comes in. Ashes are a sign of mourning. People in grief or sorrow would put on sackcloth and ashes. They would feel itchy and look dirty on the outside because of your sadness and pain on the inside. The image is rooted in two deeper symbols. First, cities that were destroyed produced ash and rubble. Ashes became a symbol of destruction and loss. Second, ashes related to the symbol of dirt. Humans are made from dirt, and to dirt we return. Ashes on our heads for Ash Wednesday remind us of our frailty, our sin and the destruction we should receive, and of the sorry we should feel for our sin. It is a symbol of repentance.

So we begin the Lenten journey with Ash Wednesday. Traditionally, the church would not sing any song with hallelujah in it, or sing the Gloria, until after Easter. The songs would be in minor keys, and speak of sin and the need for the cross.

In church history, Easter would be a time of joining the church. People would be baptized on Easter. And Lent was their preparation. And the palms of Palm Sunday we traditionally burned to be the ashes of the next year. The cycle back to Easter starts again.

The point of this journey would not be to morbidly obsess with our sin or make us depressed. They point was to create a sense of night, so that when Easter burst forth, it would be like a bright sunrise. At Easter, we are meant to put away the Ashes and put on joy. We are to stop our repentance and start our celebration.

 So may the words of Jesus be the cry of your heart this Lent, from Mark 1:14-15 14 Now after John was arrested, Jesus came into Galilee, proclaiming the gospel of God, 15 and saying, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand; repent and believe in the gospel.”


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