Today marks the beginning of the season of Lent. Lent is a 40-day season of repentance, fasting, praying, and giving, which prepares us to rightly commemorate Christ’s death and to joyously celebrate his resurrection. If you do the math, you’ll find that we’re actually 46 days away from Easter right now, but Sundays are considered feast days within the season of Lent, hence there are 40 days of fasting.
Ashes were used in the Old Testament to represent several things: humility, repentance and mortality. When an individual was repenting before God for their sin, they would roll in ashes, or sit in ashes, or place ashes on their head, a sign that they were humbling themselves before God and publicly expressing their grief, sorrow, repentance, and need for forgiveness. Ashes were also a sign of one’s mortality. Abraham noted that he was nothing but “dust and ashes.”
As we come forward on Ash Wednesday to receive the ashes, we are acknowledging our sin and our mortality. In receiving the ashes we are humbling ourselves before God and expressing our need for what Christ offers in his death and resurrection. God’s answer to our sin and mortality is Jesus death and resurrection. Christ dies to address our sin and to convey God’s grace and forgiveness. He rose from the dead, triumphing over death and promising, “because I live, you shall live also.”
So Ash Wednesday marks the first step in preparing our hearts to rightly commemorate Christ’s death and to celebrate his resurrection. It points to why we need what Christ offers. The statements made by the pastors or priests at the imposition of the ashes point towards this dual emphasis of Ash Wednesday and Lent. They say, “Remember from dust you came and to dust you shall return,” or “Repent and believe the good news.” The first statement points to our mortality. The second to our sin and need for grace. By the way, the ashes used on Ash Wednesday are typically created by burning the previous year’s palms from Palm Sunday.
The 40 days of Lent unite us with Christ’s 40 days of fasting as he began his public ministry (and other periods of 40 days in the Scriptures). Fasting from something that you enjoy during this time is a way of spiritually focusing your attention on Christ and uniting with him. Every time you hunger for the object you’ve fasted from you are reminded of Christ, of your desire to unite with him in his fast, and to serve him with your life. You may break your fast from sunset Saturday night to sunset Sunday, or simply all day and evening on Sunday.
Some of you reading this are using my Lenten books in your small groups, churches or for your own devotional studies. The Way is a 40-day journey through the three-year public life of Jesus starting with his baptism and ending with his death and resurrection. 24 Hours That Changed the World is a 40-day journey focused on the last 24 hours of Jesus’ life, starting with the Last Supper and ending with his burial with a final chapter on the Resurrection. Final Words is a 40-day journey focused on the seven last statements of Jesus from the cross.
Every Tuesday through the season of Lent I’ll post an excerpt from my upcoming book, Making Sense of the Bible, and then every Friday, I’ll post an excerpt from either the book or devotional for The Way: Walking in the Footsteps of Jesus.