What Is Ash Wednesday and Lent?

Ash Wednesday marks the beginning of the traditional season of Lent, a 40-day journey (minus Sundays) toward Easter. Here are some common questions about Lent.

“What is Lent all about?”
Lent is more than a worn-out tradition marked by self-absorbed sorrow and meal-skipping. Instead, Lent is a journey into greater depths of life with Jesus Christ. The 40-day journey reminds us of Jesus’ 40-day temptation in the desert before starting His public ministry. It reminds us of the people of Israel led by Moses through the wilderness for 40 years before entering the promised land. We enter into Jesus’ journey toward, into, and through the Cross. It is a preparation for a deeper experience of the joys of the resurrection on Easter Sunday.

“Why do people have ashes on their foreheads ?”
It is common practice on Ash Wednesday for Christians to begin the Lenten journey on Ash Wednesday by having the sign of the cross marked upon their forehead with ashes. This is a sign of our mortality, “that we are dust” (Psalm 103:14) and to dust we shall return. The ashes also are a sign of repentance similar to what we encounter in the Scripture: “Therefore I despise myself and repent in dust and ashes” (Job 42:6). In some traditions, the ashes are made from palm branches used on Palm Sunday of the previous year, thus connecting one Lenten journey to another through the suffering of Christ.

“Do we need to pay attention to human traditions like this?”
No, there is no Scriptural requirement to observe Lent. However, generation after generation within the Christian church have found great value in observing this focused journey toward remembrance and celebration of Jesus’ death and resurrection. It may rescue us from merely ordering our lives around academic or holiday calendars, where the high points of Spring are holiday vacations or Easter candy. Instead, we order our lives around the life of Jesus Christ, with His Cross and Resurrection as the high points of celebration.

“How should I observe Lent?”
Lent is intended to be a community journey, so it is important to enter into this with others. This happens best through a local church community that takes on certain practices together, such as our 40-Day devotional at Eastbrook Church. Along with that, I often encourage the practice of traditional Lenten spiritual practices, such as fasting, prayer, sacrificial giving, and reading Scripture. These practices strengthen us to say “no” to ourselves and “yes” to God, through the movement of abstaining from something (fasting), turning to God (prayer), and putting another discipline in its place (almsgiving).

Here is a short video we put together at Eastbrook to help explain the significance of Ash Wednesday.

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