Ash Wednesday & Lent: A Very Brief Primer
Lent us just about upon us once again, with Ash Wednesday coming up next week. Let's take a few minutes to refresh ourselves on the purpose of this season and some of it's practices.
Periods of forty are a common occurrence in Scripture. Israel's 40 years of wilderness wandering is perhaps the most well known and foundational, but we also find a period of 40 days connected with the impending judgment of God and Nineveh's repentance(Jonah 3); Elijah fasted 40 days on his journey to Mt. Horeb on the strength of the bread and water given him by an angel (1 Kings 19); Moses spent 40 days on Mt. Sinai with Yahweh, neither eating or drinking.
Jesus takes up this 40 days theme when, after His Baptism, He is driven by the Spirit into the wilderness, fasting and battling Satan for 40 days. The season of Lent follows this pattern, joining our Lord, as the Church exercises our spiritual muscles for a 40 day season. Lent is not a time for us to pretend we've forgotten the end of the Gospel story for 40 days; it's not about gloomy introspection and self-flagellation. Rather, Lent is a time of training for spiritual warfare, an annual re-orientation with the whole armor of God given to us in Christ (Eph. 6:10-20). Lent is a reminder of the bad news that makes the Good News of Easter so good, a reminder of our need for a Savior, and a reminder that we the baptized are crucified with Christ, dead to sin and alive to righteousness (Rom. 6:1-14). Use this season to train yourself for spiritual warfare, for daily repentance, so you can fight the good fight all year long, fighting manfully under Christ's banner, as one of our baptismal prayers puts it. If you choose to follow some form of the Lenten fast, this is to be the purpose: training yourself to say "n"o for a time to something that may be fine in itself (whether it's meat, sweets, movies, etc.) so that you can continue to say "no" all year to the world, the flesh, and the devil.
The season of Lent begins with Ash Wednesday. The Ash Wednesday service focuses on confession of sin and includes a tangible act of repentance, of ashes on the forehead in the sign of the Cross. The traditional practice of the imposition of ashes is a confession that we are but dust, and to dust we shall return (Gen. 3:19). The Bible gives plenty of examples of the use of dust in acts of repentance: Job repents in dust and ashes after being questioned by Yahweh (Job 42:6); the Ninevites, again, repent in sackcloth and ashes (Jon. 3:5-6). See Esther 4 and II Samuel 13 for more examples. Repentance in the Bible is almost always accompanied by some physical action. God created us as physical beings, not mere spirits in a physical shell, not brains on a stick. The curse of sin touches our bodies, and the Gospel announces God's forgiveness of our sin through the Cross and Resurrection of Christ, which means we will be raised whole, body and soul, to everlasting life. To dust we shall return, but God will raise up this dust to eternal life. "The body is sown in corruption, it is raised in incorruption." (II Cor. 15:42) The ashes are applied in the sign of the Cross to remind us that the only hope for our body is the Cross of Christ. The use of the sign of the Cross has ancient precedent in the life of the Church as a tangible reminder of our union with Christ. Some in the early church looked to Ezekiel 9:1-7, where "those who sigh and cry over all the abominations that are done" in Jerusalem are marked on the forehead. The Hebrew indicates this mark is a tav, a Hebrew letter in the shape of a cross.
It's important for us to remember that the imposition of ashes is not a sacrament. There is no Gospel promise attached to this practice, as there is with Baptism and the Lord's Supper. This is a tradition, a custom of the Church. And it's a custom that is thus optional. No one who comes to the Ash Wednesday service is required to receive ashes. There may be varying degrees of comfort with the practice, and that's okay. If you're thinking of coming to the Ash Wednesday service, but aren't comfortable with receiving ashes, feel free to come and just remain in your seat for that portion. We are not to make judgments around customs of this sort.
It's also important for us to remember Jesus' warnings against self-righteousness. In Matthew 6, included in the Gospel lesson for Ash Wednesday, Jesus describes "the hypocrites" who "disfigure their faces that they may appear to be fasting." This doesn't exactly describe the practice of anointing with ashes; it seems they were attempting to make themselves look malnourished in some way to draw attention to their fast. Besides, we know from the rest of Scripture (see the texts cited above) that the use of ashes in connection with repentance can be appropriate and fitting. However, in our flesh we are capable of corrupting anything. Don't receive ashes to make a show of repentance and continue to cling to your sins in your heart.
Use this season of Lent to re-focus on Christ's call to you to take up your cross and follow Him. What areas of your life have you let slide? Where do you need to repent? By the Holy Spirit, take up your armor and fight manfully under Christ's banner. Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return, but that you are united to Jesus, the Lord of life, and in Him you live.
Pr. Jacob Hanby