Today is Ash Wednesday. Many people consider its observance to be primarily for Roman Catholics, but the truth is Protestants and Evangelicals will be holding Ash Wednesday services all over the world in order to “mark” the first day of Lent. The Lenten season was first celebrated by Christians in the fourth century as a 40-day preparation for Easter Eve, which was the annual date new believers were baptized in the churches en masse.
How cool is that? 40 days of spiritual preparation before your baptism if you’re a new believer. 40 days of spiritual preparation to celebrate the baptism of new believers if you are already a believer. Sadly, too many of us are so quick to dismiss parts of our history that, in the past, were so full of life, purpose, and meaning. Sometimes we need to be reminded that the Church existed for a millennium and a half before the Protestant Reformation. Early Christians had some meaningful forms of worship that are worth remembering and, at times, practicing. As Martin Luther said, “The fathers have written many things that are pious and useful, but they must be read with discrimination and judged by the Scriptures.”
ASH WEDNESDAY AND LENT
Lent(en), which comes from an old English word meaning “lengthen,” begins as the days get longer during the transition from winter to spring. The purpose of Lent is to take regular time during a period of 40 days to reflect on the events leading up to Jesus’ crucifixion and resurrection. This is often accompanied by participation in a partial fast from some food or activity. The 40 days of abstaining from something that one enjoys are meant to be reminiscent of Jesus’ fast during his sojourn into the desert to be tempted by Satan. The celebration of the Lenten season has its roots in good biblical theology. Rather than celebrating the resurrection for one Sunday, or even for a week, Lent gives us five Sundays during the course of 40 days to reflect on the Living Christ.
Lent begins on the seventh Wednesday before Easter Sunday which has come to be known as Ash Wednesday. At an Ash Wednesday service, a prayer or statement is offered and ashes are placed as a mark on one’s forehead, usually in the shape of the cross.
A simple evangelical Ash Wednesday liturgy might sound like this, which I used today while marking several people:
In the Old Testament, ashes were a sign of repentance before God. In the New Testament, the cross is the sign of forgiveness. When we reflect on the cross, we are reminded that we need Christ’s forgiveness each day and we are thankful for his gift of salvation.
[Prayer] God our Creator, the strength of all who put their trust in you, mercifully accept our prayers; and because, in our weakness, we can do nothing good without you, grant us the help of your grace, that in keeping your commandments we may please you, both in will and deed; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
It’s not too late for Ash Wednesday and the celebration of Lent to become a part of your own faith journey and spiritual discipline. Here are some options for you:
- Find a church in your area offering an Ash Wednesday service today or this evening and participate.
- Look for a local opportunity to be marked with ashes, such as an Ashes to Go offering in your area, as we did in Tulsa today.
- Give yourself a reminder for next year to make this special practice from our Christian heritage a part of your own faith journey.