Today, (February 18th, 2015), is the first day of Lent. Maybe this doesn’t mean much to you…or maybe it does. In truth, it used to mean very little to me.
Until recently, the season of Lent seemed wholly Catholic—and I’m not Catholic. Until recently, I was very out of touch with when Lent actually started and what it represented. I knew people who gave up chocolate, swore off swearing, and even turned their back on Facebook for a season. All this self discipline seemed noble, but for what purpose ultimately?
In the last couple of years, I’ve come to a better understanding of Lent—and why it can be a valuable time of reflection for Protestants, too, as the Easter season approaches.
The season of Lent lasts for 40 days, (not counting Sundays, which are considered feast days), and represents the 40 days that Jesus fasted in the wilderness and was tempted by Satan. Ash Wednesday marks the beginning of the Lenten season—a season set aside to reflect upon Jesus Christ’s life, suffering, sacrifice, death, burial and resurrection. It is a sober time of repentance and spiritual contemplation—which, arguably, can and ought to be done any time…and often. (But on the latter point, I digress.)
Why ashes on Ash Wednesday? Ashes symbolize our mortality (dust to dust) and remind worshipers of the need for cleansing and purifying. Typically, the pastor takes the ashes on the end of his thumb and makes the sign of the cross on the forehead of each worshiper. While doing so, he issues the biblical reminder, “For dust you are and to dust you shall return.” (Genesis 3:19).
God spoke these same words to Adam and Eve after they had eaten the forbidden fruit and fallen into sin—which was punishable by death. When these words from Genesis are spoken on Ash Wednesday, they remind each penitent worshipper of their sinfulness and mortality—of their need to repent and be reconciled to God. Making the sign of the cross with the ashes is a reminder that through Jesus Christ’s death there is forgiveness of sins—and that by faith in Christ for the forgiveness of sins there is reconciliation with God and eternal life.
From where do the ashes come? Sometimes the ashes are the burned palms from the previous Palm Sunday. Making ashes this way produces plenty of ash for an entire congregation. Like sin, the ashes are dirty and go a long way. In fact, one palm leaf can produce enough ashes for several years!
Is there biblical evidence for the rite of ashes? While the use of ashes does appear in Scripture, nowhere is there a command to observe Lent or to put on ashes. The practice itself did not emerge until the 8th century. We do, however, have the freedom as Christians to practice the putting on of ashes as a sincere means of worship—or not to practice it. Sincerity is the key. Let every man examine himself.
That being said, the use of ashes appears in several places in both the Old and New Testaments as an outward display of inner repentance or mourning. In the book of Job, for example, after God has spoken and shown His power in creation, Job submits himself to God saying, “therefore I despise myself, and repent in dust and ashes.” (Job 42:6)
Daniel, likewise, turns his “face to the Lord God, seeking him by prayer and pleas for mercy with fasting and sackcloth and ashes,” conscious of his own sins and the sins of Israel. (Daniel 9:3).
In the New Testament, Jesus refers to the practice of repentance “in sackcloth and ashes” in Matthew 11:21.
These are just a few examples. There are others: 2 Samuel 13:19; Esther 4:1 & 3; Jeremiah 6:26; and Ezekiel 27:30.
Putting it into perspective: Observing Lent doesn’t necessarily make a person a Christian—or a better Christian. Nevertheless, if you see someone with ashes on their forehead today, consider it a witness that all people are sinners facing death and in need of repentance. And not only that, through faith in Jesus there is forgiveness of sins and eternal life after this life. …Thanks be to God.
 Matthew 4:1-11; Luke 4:1-11