If you’ve never heard anything about Ash Wednesday or Lent before (or at least have never heard anything good about them), this article is for you.
Let’s start with Scripture. Imagine you’re an Israelite and your religious leaders read this is a solemn proclamation. Or if that’s too much of a stretch, imagine this is being read by your pastor or community leaders:
“Yet even now,” declares the Lord, “return to me with all your heart, with fasting, with weeping, and with mourning; and rend your hearts and not your garments.” Return to the Lord your God, for he is gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love; and he relents over disaster. Who knows whether he will not turn and relent, and leave a blessing behind him, a grain offering and a drink offering for the Lord your God? Blow the trumpet in Zion; consecrate a fast; call a solemn assembly; gather the people. Consecrate the congregation; assemble the elders; gather the children, even nursing infants. Let the bridegroom leave his room, and the bride her chamber. Between the vestibule and the altar let the priests, the ministers of the Lord, weep and say, “Spare your people, O Lord, and make not your heritage a reproach, a byword among the nations. Why should they say among the peoples, ‘Where is their God?’” – Joel 2:12-17
Repentance in the Old Testament
When something bad happens, like death or tragedy or sin, people would go into mourning and show their grief in certain ways: fasting, sackcloth, ashes. The above quote from Joel is a classic, eloquent, and powerful call to such a period of time. But why fasting, sackcloth, and ashes? People would fast as an act of self-denial, either to share in the sufferings of those who were suffering, or to make oneself suffer to express sorrow for one’s own sin. People would put on sackcloth as an act of self-abasement, because it’s uncomfortable and unfashionable, thus sharing in the humility of those who have been humiliated by sin, tragedy, or death. And lastly, people would smear their heads or faces with ashes partly to outwardly reflect the ugliness of the sin within, and partly to remember our mortality.
Wait, what do ashes have to do with our mortality? As it is written in Ecclesiastes 3:19-20, For what happens to the children of man and what happens to the beasts is the same; as one dies, so dies the other. They all have the same breath, and man has no advantage over the beasts, for all is vanity. And that, in turn, is simply a reflection all the way back to Genesis 2:7 where it says then the Lord God formed the man of dust from the ground and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life, and the man became a living creature. So when people put ashes on their heads, it was a vivid scriptural reminder that they would one day die because of their sins.
But over time, even these classic practices, as biblical as they are, came to be abused by the ancient Israelites. And so, speaking through the prophet Isaiah, God had to put down some corrections on how to fast properly. Chapter 58 of the book of Isaiah has some famous rebukes pointing out that simply going through the motions of fasting and putting on sackcloth & ashes aren’t enough (see verses 1-5). Alongside those outward physical practices must go other spiritual and devotional practices as well, especially acts of mercy and justice (see verses 6-7). The rest of the chapter then goes on to promise God’s blessings upon such faithful fasts, particularly pointing out that their prayers will then be respected and answered, unlike during their previous empty prayers of lip service. It is from scriptural teachings such as this that the classic trio of Christian Lenten disciplines are derived: fasting, almsgiving, and prayer.
Repentance in the New Testament
Although, as Christians, we honor the Old Testament as the authoritative word from God, we receive it through the filter of the Christ, Jesus, and thus it is helpful for us to look at New Testament teachings to clarify how such Old Testament commands speak to the Church today. One traditional example is the middle of Hebrews 12. In that chapter we are reminded that Jesus suffered, and therefore so will his people. Christian suffering, however, is not about self-hating masochism, but about discipline from God to help us grow. Today we frequently think of discipline as punishment, but in reality discipline is larger than that – when musicians and athletes practice and rehearse, that’s discipline. When Christians fast and give alms and pray, that’s discipline. And, just as verses 12-14 of Hebrews 12 teaches, there is a link between discipline from God and doing good works that we ought to honor.
So Ash Wednesday is a call to repentance, recognizing that though we are Christ’s, we still sin, and that’s wrong. Thus for over 1,600 years the Church has called for a special time of focused fasting, alms-giving, and prayer leading up to the celebration of Easter, when Jesus rose again from the dead. Like in the Old Testament, we still have much to mourn and grieve over, and repent from, and therefore have a similar call to an intense life of obedience to God. Unlike the Old Testament, however, we know that Christ has conquered the devil and put death to flight, so when we experience discipline (be it from God directly or through our own pursuit of spiritual disciplines,) we can accept it joyfully, knowing that we are following the way of Christ through death into everlasting life!
For further reading about Ash Wednesday & Lent
“Preparation for Lent” – a brief summary of what Lent is, and why we observe it
“What is Lent?” – a seven-minute video about how Lent is an opportunity for us to do battle against sin together
“Ash Wednesday for Newbies” – answers to some frequently asked questions
“Spring Training for Christians” – comparing Lent to the baseball spring training season
“The Christian Olympics” – similar analogy as the previous
“Prevent us, O Lord” – a sermon about how God is the true worker in Lenten disciplines
“Get Saved versus Fight Evil” – a reminder that we shouldn’t take salvation for granted, but live accordingly
“the First Day of Lent” – the prayer and readings read at the traditional Communion service on Ash Wednesday, with a brief accompanying devotional