About Lent and Ash Wednesday

The Advent-Christmas-Epiphany cycle came to an end yesterday, Sunday, February 19, with the celebration of the Transfiguration of Our Lord.

Lent begins on Ash Wednesday, February 22.

Traditionally, Lent is the 40-day period (excluding Sundays) starting on Ash Wednesday and ending on Holy Saturday, the day before Easter, which this year is April 9.

The word “lent” comes from an old English word “lengten” from which we get our modern word “lengthen.”  Lent hints of longer days and of spring, that time when the earth begins to awaken from its winter dormancy and new life grows all around us.  More personally, Lent is the springtime of the soul; a time to examine our spiritual life, a time to look more closely at the quality of our relationship with God.  You might think of Lent as a time to do some “spring cleaning” inside of us, a time to toss out the “stuff” that clutters our lives and holds us back, and then freshen up the “new creature” we are meant to be as followers of Jesus Christ.

There are many ways to clean up or strengthen our spiritual condition including: fasting (going without one or more meals each day), spending more time in silence and prayer, reading the Bible and devotional literature, attending public worship more often, meeting in small groups with other Christians to share stories of faith and life, and serving those in need more intentionally.  During Lent some Christians focus on giving up something such as a bad habit or a particular type of food or an hour of sleep in order to study and meditate.  Is it absolutely necessary to make a special sacrifice?  Who can truly say?  What is clear is that Lent should be a time of sincere spiritual growth.

This is why the word “repentance” is closely connected to Lent.  What do you think of when you hear the word “repent”?  Maybe you are reminded of the story of John the Baptist in the wilderness of Judea by the Jordan River telling people to repent and be baptized (Matthew 3:1-12).  But what does it mean to “repent” or “[b]ear fruit worthy of repentance”?  Literally, it means to stop the way one is going, turn around, and then walk in the opposite direction.  It refers to turning away from sin and shallow living and to walk more faithfully with God.

A sign of this new way to live is ashes.  According to the Bible, ashes were used for purification (see Numbers 19:17 and Hebrews 9:13).  From ancient times, ashes also have been used as a symbol of penitence.  Dusting oneself with ashes was a way of expressing sorrow for sins.  In his pain and grief, Job “sat among the ashes” (2:8).  Later on Job says to God, “I had heard of you by the hearing of the ear, but now my eye sees you; therefore I despise myself, and repent in dust and ashes” (42:3-5).  Today, ashes symbolize our intent to repent of our sins, to accept purification from God, and to make a public witness of our faith in Jesus Christ as Savior and Lord.

My hope and prayer is that this Lent each of you will practice some spiritual disciplines to “show that you are a letter of Christ … written not with ink but with the Spirit of the living God, not on tablets of stone but on tablets of human hearts” (2 Corinthians 3:3).

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