Today is Ash Wednesday and for many non-Catholics they wonder, “what is this all about?” Actually, back in 2004 Ash Wednesday was on the minds of many across our nation as Mel Gibson’s movie “The Passion of Christ” was released on Ash Wednesday of that year.
What is Lent and what is Ash Wednesday?
Lent (a word meaning “spring”) was an ancient church practice of taking the six weeks before Easter and preparing new converts for baptism. It was also a time for all believers to focus on repentance before the Lord and thus evolved the Lenten “fast,” giving up something during the six weeks of Lent. Many Protestant Christians over the years rejected a church-wide practice of Lent, correctly pointing out that it was not required in Scripture.
Let me state the obvious: Lent is not a requirement for Christians. Dallas Willard has said, and I agree, that if a certain spiritual discipline not required by God helps you grow in God’s grace, then by all means do it. But if it doesn’t, don’t feel like you must do it.
Some Christians practice Lent/Ash Wednesday, some do not, and many may not embrace the rituals but they do embrace the realities of sober thinking about life, death, repentance, grace and hope.
Ash Wednesday kicks-off the Lenten season as a day to stare mortality in eye and acknowledge that we will someday return to dust. And just in case you forget that you will not live forever on earth, here are some ashes on your forehead to remind you that your earthly days are numbered. We all stand guilty before a holy God. We all are mortal and will someday experience bodily death. Thus we all need a Savior.
In the Old Testament, ashes are used for two purposes. First, they were used as a sign of humility and mortality. The second is found in the book of Job, where ashes are used as a sign of sorrow and repentance for sin.
Someone says, “well, that’s not a very shiny and happy and giddy message.” No, but it’s the truth and it’s the kind of truth that can prepare you to receive, cherish and celebrate the best news ever because of what happened on Easter Sunday.
And so, whether or not you are wearing ashes on your forehead today, I do encourage you think through some of the following truths that are especially relevant during this season of the year.
First, examine your temporary life and repent of those persistent sins that war against the kind of person you want to be for Jesus Christ. Ask, “what needs cleansing within me? What are my points of rebellion? Where do I need help? What am I pretending not to notice about my life?”
Second, is there some type of fast that you want to embrace over the next few weeks? Something that when you crave it you declare to God, “Lord, I need you more than I need this thing/food/etc that I’m desiring.”
Third, look your mortality squarely in the eye and know that your life on earth has an expiration date. “It is appointed unto man once to die, and after that the judgment” says Scripture in the book of Hebrews.
Fourth, slowly feel the weight of the bad news of sin, death and judgment so that you can begin to feel again the joy, liberation, promise, forgiveness and hope that the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ brings for all of us who belong to him. All that stands opposed to us has been swallowed up in the living hope and new life that only Jesus Christ brings. God loves us and loves us when we are at our worst. And if we have wandered, He bids us to return to Him with the ongoing promise that if we draw close to Him, He will draw close to us (James 4).