Ash Wednesday begins the Lenten season. The observance of Lent has changed over the centuries. The early church observed Lent for only a few days before Easter and, instead of a small smudge of ash on the forehead, ashes were sprinkled over the person’s head. Over time, the length of the season grew until it was several weeks long. In the seventh century, the church set the period of Lent at forty days (excluding Sundays) in order to remind people of the duration of Jesus’ temptation in the wilderness that preceded the beginning of His earthly ministry.
In the early church, baptism was only performed on Easter Sunday—an entire year’s worth of converts to the faith would be baptized and brought into the church on that day. Lent was the time before Easter in which these converts would fast and pray, preparing themselves to be members of Christ’s church.
As the years went by, the church began to baptize people on days other than Easter Sunday. Lent was no longer a time of preparation for these events, but it remained as a special time of prayer and fasting. After the Protestant Reformation, the discipline of Lent focused on personal introspection and repentance. Preserving Lent as a time of self-sacrifice, the church leaders encouraged people to give up something they enjoyed during Lent. It still can be a very meaningful experience to give up, for the Lenten season, something that you enjoy, or something that may take a lot of time but really gives you little lasting value.
Lent is also an opportunity to commit to something important that you may have neglected. During the 40 days of Lent I plan on reading through the New Testament and reading two books a week that will fuel my faith. I challenge you: What should you give up for Lent (fasting some meals, TV, a hobby...) and what should you pursue? Maybe, like me, you could read through the NT, or perhaps set aside a prayer time each day. The Wesleyan Church has published a Lent Guide for 2021 with short daily readings to consider.
Lent is an opportunity for you to become more self-aware in order to experience deep formation and transformation. Some of the greatest moments we experience as followers of God are when we still ourselves before God in honest vulnerability and seek His face. Jesus said in Matthew 6:5-6, “And when you pray, you must not be like the hypocrites. For they love to stand and pray in the synagogues and at the street corners, that they may be seen by others. Truly, I say to you, they have received their reward. But when you pray, go into your room and shut the door and pray to your Father who is in secret. And your Father who sees in secret will reward you.”
Lent is an opportunity to shut the door and pray to God. Lent is a time of reflection and preparation for Easter. Not just a long lamenting experience, instead, it is an acknowledgement of life as we know it. The traditional statement associated with Ash Wednesday is "Ashes to Ashes, Dust to Dust" - a reminder of the frailty and mortality we all experience in life. I always thought this seemed a bit harsh. "Hey man, you are dirt," isn't exactly uplifting. But that is precisely the point. Before we can appreciate the new life of Jesus Christ we must place it in stark contrast with what we know. And what do we know? Well, just watch the news, listen to your neighbors, or check your bank account. We know scarcity. We know fear. We know dashed hopes and brokenness. We know ashes.
The true reward waiting at the end of Lent is not that our piety will be rewarded, but that our ashes are precisely the material God will use to bring new life. It is a time to shut the door and seek God.
Dear brothers and sisters in Jesus: the early Christians observed with great devotion the days of our Lord's passion and resurrection, and it became the custom of the Church that before the Easter celebration there should be a forty–day season of spiritual preparation during which the church was reminded of the mercy and forgiveness proclaimed in the gospel of Jesus Christ and the need we all have to renew our faith.
I invite you, to observe a holy Lent beginning this Ash Wednesday and leading to Resurrection Sunday: by self–examination and repentance; by prayer, fasting, and self–denial; and by reading and meditating on God's Holy Word.
Love in Christ,
Ash Wednesday Bible Readings