In just over a week the season of Lent begins on what has become known as Ash Wednesday. Being born and raised in the Catholic Church, I remember going to a special Mass and having the priest make the sign of the cross on my forehead with ashes.
I thought I’d write this blog taking you on a journey through time about explain how that practice came about and to encourage you use this season of Lent to prepare yourself for Good Friday and Easter . . .
The season of Lent started to be observed in the 4th century. After Christians stopped being fed to lions thanks to Emperor Constantine, they had the luxury of observing seasons in the church calendar. Hence, Lent was created.
Back then the Lenten season started on a Sunday. In the 6th century, the church leaders moved the start day to a Wednesday mainly because they did not fast on Sundays. (Sunday was seen as the “Lord’s Day” and they didn’t believe you should fast). They wanted 40 actual days of fasting during Lent (to mirror Jesus’ 40 days of fasting in the desert), so they moved the start day of Lent from a Sunday to a Wednesday.
Then in 1091 A.D. a church council convened and decreed that everyone would receive ashes on the Wednesday that kicked off Lent. The ashes were made from the burned up palms from the previous year’s Palm Sunday.
But why use ashes? Two reasons . . .
First, it was a picture of what people did in biblical times. While biblical characters didn’t put ashes on their foreheads to kick off Lent, they put ashes on themselves for other reasons. When you read the Bible, you read stories of how people put on sackcloth and placed ashes (or dust) on themselves as a sign of repentance or grief over something. Here are a few examples . . .
What sorrow awaits you, Korazin and Bethsaida! For if the miracles I did in you had been done in wicked Tyre and Sidon, their people would have repented of their sins long ago, clothing themselves in burlap and throwing ashes on their heads to show their remorse. – Luke 10:13 (NLT)
So I turned to the Lord God and pleaded with him in prayer and fasting. I also wore rough burlap and sprinkled myself with ashes. – Daniel 9:3 (NLT)
Tamar put ashes on her head and tore the ornamented robe she was wearing. She put her hand on her head and went away, weeping aloud as she went. – 2 Samuel 13:19 (NIV)
So even though the earliest believers didn’t put ashes on their foreheads to kick off Lent, these Scriptures show how receiving ashes on your forehead is mirrored in the Bible.
Another reason for ashes . . .It reminds us of our mortality. It reminds us that one day we will die. As pastors say at funerals, “Ashes to ashes. Dust to dust.” And because we only have a short time on earth, we ought to do what the Scriptures say in verses like Ephesians 5:15-16 – “Be very careful, then, how you live —n ot as unwise but as wise, making the most of every opportunity.”
Whether or not you go to a church that will place ashes on your forehead on February 22nd, may you resolve to spend this season of Lent preparing and anticipating the events of Good Friday and Easter morning. May you take Lent seriously this year. By the grace of God, may you live differently during the 40 days of Lent. By the power of the Holy Spirit, may you be intentional with your spiritual journey from now until Easter.
And to help you with your Lenten journey, I put together a handout called “Experiencing Lent.” Pick up your free copy at our church this Sunday.
*** Join us this Sunday at The Eastside Vineyard Church. My sermon is titled “Ash Sunday” and I’ll be unpacking Matthew 9:14-17 and focusing on the practice of fasting during Lent. Plus, this Sunday marks our church’s 1st birthday — we launched one year ago on February 20, 2011! Plus, there will be worship, communion, and an opportunity to receive 1-on-1 prayer. February 19. 10:30am. More info at tevchurch.org ***