Many traditions in the church can seem outdated, especially when you don’t understand the history behind them. If you do something because it’s rote, even if it’s part of your childhood, your heart may not be in it. Let’s take a look at Ash Wednesday and Lent to understand its importance in the church.
What Is Lent?
The Lenten season begins on Ash Wednesday, about six weeks before Easter. Easter Sunday is traditionally the first Sunday after the first full moon on or after the March equinox. During Lent, believers prepare for the celebration of Easter through prayer, fasting, repentance and remembrance of the story of Jesus Christ.
Lent lasts 40 days, which is a commemoration of the 40 days that Jesus spent fasting in the desert. Sundays are not counted as part of Lent. The number 40 is referenced many more times in the Bible:
- Noah and his family endured 40 days and nights of rain in the ark
- Moses spent 40 days on Mount Sinai receiving the Ten Commandments and Jewish law
- The Hebrew people wandered in the desert for 40 years before reaching the Promised Land
- Elijah spent 40 days and nights walking to Mount Horeb
- It’s thought that Jesus spent 40 hours in the tomb
Traditionally, believers spent the time in Lent abstaining from festivities and rich and luxurious foods, and even doing penance. Today, most believers who remember Lent simply give up a vice, like watching TV. Many people add extra prayer or devotional time with God during Lent, to increase their spiritual awareness.
Ash Wednesday marks the beginning of Lent. This year, it falls on February 14. Believers fast from meat on Ash Wednesday and attend a worship service where the priest or pastor will place ashes on their forehead, maybe in the sign of a cross. Biblically, ashes were a sign of grief. Job used ashes as a way to express sorrow. For Christians, the ashes are an external sign of repentance.
Other Lenten traditions include covering religious images. In medieval times, the priests did not want the faithful worshiping crucifixes and statues adorned with jewels and gems during the austere time of Lent. Now, almost all pictures, statues and crosses in churches that celebrate Lent are covered in purple or black fabric as a symbol of mourning.
What Can We Learn Through Lent?
Although Lent is traditionally a time of penance, it doesn’t have to be the deep, sorrowful lack of any fun that it might have been hundreds of years ago. Think of it as a time of preparation for the Easter celebration. Instead of looking at Lent as a time of “mortifying the flesh,” make it a time of spiritual resolutions. Throughout Lent, make plans to do something out of the ordinary:
- Perform one act of kindness for a stranger every day. Buy someone’s coffee; better yet, buy groceries for someone.
- Choose a book (or more) to read that will add depth to your spiritual understanding.
- Plan to attend church every week during Lent.
- Volunteer at a nursing home for six weeks. Visiting with residents who don’t have family can be rewarding for you and for them.
- Take donations to a homeless shelter or your local domestic violence center. Many charities are forgotten after the holidays, but still have needs. Socks, underwear and toiletries can always be used.
- Connect with friends and family more.
- Reflect on what you want out of your spiritual life. How can you be the person you want to be?
Lent is what you make it. If you believe it’s outdated and irrelevant in today’s church, don’t just go through the motions of fasting. If you are going to remember Lent, make it meaningful for you.