Ash Wednesday: The Beginning of Lent
The church season of Lent is marked by the bookends of Ash Wednesday on one side and Easter on the other. Lent gives Christians the opportunity to prepare for the gifts and glory of Easter by reflecting on our need for God’s salvation and restoration. As humans created by God, we are finite and fallible; yet God loves, saves, and restores us. Recognizing the limitations of human existence alongside the amazing grace of God in Jesus Christ enhances the meaning and significance of Easter as the day we celebrate the resurrection of our Lord Jesus. We begin this time of reflection by observing Ash Wednesday, which focuses on human mortality and sin and acknowledges our need for God’s overwhelming grace. As we begin our journey to the cross of Good Friday, the empty grave, and the gift of new life on Easter morning, Ash Wednesday sets the tone for the spiritual challenges and practices of Lent.
Lent is composed of the 40 days between Ash Wednesday and Easter, not including the Sundays of those six weeks. It has long been the practice of the church to understand Sundays as mini-Easters anticipating the Day of Resurrection. The word Lent comes from the Anglo-Saxon meaning “spring” and is traditionally understood as a time of fasting and penance in preparation for Easter.
The Great Three Days, sometimes called Triduum or Pasch, beginning with sunset on Maundy Thursday through sunset on Easter, conclude Lent and declare the mystery of Christ’s death and resurrection. Each year, we travel with Jesus through the Last Supper, the prayers and betrayal in the garden, the Crucifixion, and the empty tomb. We eat the bread of Communion and rejoice with alleluias on Easter morning for the gifts of salvation and life that overcomes death.
Lent has also been understood as a time of preparation for the renewal of our baptismal covenant. In the early church, candidates for baptism spent as long as three years preparing to be baptized. The last 40 days were known as the “scrutinies,” when candidates examined themselves and church leaders determined whether they were ready to be baptized. Later, Lent became that time when all Christians were invited to consider their need for spiritual renewal. This was common practice by the time of the Council of Nicea in 325 A.D.
According to The United Methodist Book of Worship, “Ash Wednesday emphasizes a dual encounter: we confront our own mortality and confess our sin before God within the community of faith. . . .
The service focus [is] on the dual themes of sin and death in the light of God’s redeeming love in Jesus Christ.” Ash Wednesday then is a time to reflect on our nature as finite, sinful people and on God’s nature as forgiving and redeeming. On Sunday morning, many of us confess our sins and declare that we are sinners. Ash Wednesday gives us the occasion to stop—or at least to slow down—and to reflect on what exactly it means for us to acknowledge that we are sinners and that we will die. Recognizing these realities gives depth to our gratitude for God’s love and grace.
Biblical Understandings of Sin
The Genesis 3 story of the Fall gives us an overview of sin as the broken relationship between the humans and God. God created the man and woman in a garden and instructed them not to eat fruit from a certain tree. However, they failed to obey God’s command; and when God sought their presence in the cool breeze of the evening, they “hid themselves from the LORD God” (verse 8). Not only did they break their relationship with God, their disobedience led to a breach in their relationship with one another. In fact, the man seemed to blame God as well as the woman. “The man said, ‘The woman you gave me, she gave me some fruit from the tree, and I ate’ ” (verse 12). As a consequence, both the man and the woman lost their innocence and were driven from the garden to live lives marked by sin and by suffering and death. Verse 19 provides the reality that marks our observance of Ash Wednesday: “You are dust, and to dust you shall return” (NRSV).
The Old Testament uses a variety of words to express a complex understanding of sin. The cluster of meanings includes the concepts of “missing the mark,” “transgression,” “iniquity,” “rebellion,” and “evil.” Life with God and with one another as God’s people was based on covenant relationship with God and with one another. Sin was understood as any action that harmed that covenant community. The prophets often denounced oppression of the poor and vulnerable as a specific example.
The New Testament continues with these traditional understandings of sin. John the Baptist called for repentance and baptism “to show that they were changing their hearts and lives and wanted God to forgive their sins” (Mark 1:4). The Gospels present the ministry of Jesus as closely involved with salvation from sin (Matthew 1:21; John 1:29). Romans 3:22-23 presents Paul’s understanding of God’s work of salvation through Jesus Christ: “God’s righteousness comes through the faithfulness of Jesus Christ for all who have faith in him. There’s no distinction. All have sinned and fall short of God’s glory.” On Ash Wednesday, we acknowledge our own sin, our need to turn again to God, and our reliance on God’s love and grace.
The Company of Believers
Ash Wednesday is much more than a day for individual piety. It involves gathering in community to be marked by the cross of ashes. The Invitation to the Observation of Lenten Discipline read before the Imposition of Ashes reminds us of this. The invitation tells us that Lent was traditionally a time to prepare for baptism and for those who had separated themselves from the community to be restored by penitence and forgiveness. It invites us to remember that in the early days of Christianity, “the whole congregation was reminded of the mercy and forgiveness proclaimed in the gospel of Jesus Christ and the need we all have to renew our faith.” None of us come to either the days of Lent or the joy of Easter morning alone. We are joined by the company of believers—not only the ones who sit beside us on Ash Wednesday, but also those who have made the Lenten journey through the centuries. It is the latter who have left us guidance for how to prepare for the resurrection of Christ. They have left spiritual practices to enable us to walk through the valley of these 40 days and to engage with our sin and mortality and to receive with gratitude God’s love and grace.
The service for Ash Wednesday invites us to “observe a holy Lent: / by self-examination and repentance; / by prayer, fasting, and self-denial; / and by reading and meditating on God’s Holy Word.” Thus, the service offers the opportunity to consider these disciplines and the ways in which they can contribute to our Lenten journey.
Practices for the Lenten Season
In her book on the church seasons, To Dance With God: Family Ritual and Community Celebration, Gertrud Mueller Nelson describes the three disciplines of prayer, fasting, and almsgiving, which are central to Lenten living. Occasions for prayer are both communal—in the congregation and family—and private. Our communal prayers remind us of our relationships in the world—of our interdependence and our mutuality with others. Private prayer allows us time to come into God’s presence in order to reflect on our own self and relationship with God.
Nelson writes, “Fasting is a form of self-denial which traditionally involves the limitation of foods we take in or an abstinence from meat.” Fasting has long been a practice of many Protestants, including Methodists. John Wesley thought this an important practice and fasted on a weekly basis.
Almsgiving provides us the discipline of giving to others and can take many forms. Nelson invites us to give out of joy and thanksgiving for what we have rather than out of guilt we may feel over the poor and sick. Almsgiving during Lent can include money for missions such as One Great Hour of Sharing, hours spent in a food kitchen, or care packages for military serving overseas.
The Destination for the Lenten Journey
The great glad news is that the story does not end with the confession of our sinfulness. For immediately after we confess, we hear the words, “In the name of Jesus Christ, we are forgiven.” The story does not end with a tomb and death. The story culminates with Christ’s victory over death. Ash Wednesday is the first day of the journey to Resurrection.
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