What is Ash Wednesday and the Season of Lent?

Ash Wednesday 2011 is this coming Wednesday, March 9th, and as often is the case with specific days that we observe as Christians, people often ask why we observe these days over others. Ash Wednesday comes the day after Shrove Tuesday or Mardi Gras (Fat Tuesday), and is the first day of the season of Lent. Ash Wednesday in particular is observed by the Church body on the seventh Wednesday before Easter Sunday.

A Day of Reflection in Preparation for Holy Week

This begins a time of reflection for God’s people to prepare for Holy Week and occurs 46 days (40 days not counting Sundays) leading up to Easter. Ash Wednesday is a more somber reflection, which starts a season of soul-searching and repentance and both Ash Wednesday and Lent have a long history going back to the earliest church fathers. It is presented formally in the The Apostolic Constitutions, Book V, Section III here where it says:

the fast of Lent is to be observed by you as containing a memorial of our Lord’s mode of life and legislation. But let this solemnity be observed before the fast of the passover, beginning from the second day of the week, and ending at the day of the preparation. After which solemnities, breaking off your fast, begin the holy week of the passover

As explained here it’s name comes from the ancient practice of placing ashes on worshippers’ foreheads as a sign of humility before God,  and is symbolic of mourning and sorrow at the death that sin brings into the world. It not only prefigures the mourning at the death of Jesus, but also places the worshipper in a position to realize the consequences of sin. Ash Wednesday is a day of reflection on what needs to change in our lives as we grow to be more Christ-like in mind, heart, and soul.

In the early church, ashes were not offered to everyone but were only used to mark the forehead of worshippers who had made a public confession of sin and sought to be restored to the fellowship of the community at the Easter celebration. However, over the years others began to show their humility and identification with the penitents by asking that they, too, be marked as sinners. Finally, the imposition of ashes was extended to the whole congregation in services similar to those that are now observed in many Christian churches on Ash Wednesday. Ashes became symbolic of that attitude of penitence reflected in the Lord’s prayer in Luke 11:4:

and forgive us our sins, for we ourselves forgive everyone who is indebted to us. And lead us not into temptation.

Personal Reflection on the Season of Lent

Different churches and believers observe Lent in different ways, but not all churches observe Lent today, especially if you come from a Southern Baptist Church (although see Some Baptist churches will celebrate Lent this year and also More Baptist churches looking to Lent for community, confession, cadence). Sometimes anything the Catholics do the Baptists don’t, and this generally revolves around rituals not specifically found in scripture (like Ash Wednesday or lighting candles, but that’s a whole different post).

Without getting too much into the denominational battle, I spent years in the SBC where my particular church never observed Lent, and I never really understood or gained an appreciation for a specific time of reflection to prepare for Holy Week until recently.

In an upcoming post I will go through what our particular church is doing to observe Lent this year, starting with Ash Wednesday, but this is not a “church” thing.  If you are not part of a local church, you can observe a time of repentance and reflection right where you are, or here with me on my blog, as I walk through the next 40 days of Lent right here.

For a look at what we are doing at Cornerstone please read The “I AM” Lenten Reader During This Season of Lent.

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