The Christian calendar has significant days as well. Among them are Epiphany (the visitation of the Wisemen), Pentecost (the birth of the church), and Ash Wednesday which inaugurates the season of Lent. It appears from the writings of the early Church that the observance of Lent most likely began sometime in the 4th century. By the 5th century Lent was a permanent fixture in the liturgical calendar. During this time acts of penance and fasting emphasized the fallen condition of mankind- both personal and corporate. Early Christian writings show that the church grappled with rehabilitating those who had fallen into serious sin. A public demonstration of repentance became the outward symbol of an inward turning away from sin. In the days of Augustine and Jerome public penance was considered more therapeutic than a form of punishment, although in our day and age it appears harsh and demoralizing.
The date of Ash Wednesday is determined by the date of Easter and can fall on our calendars any time between February 3rd to March 10th. Several denominations share the practice of placing ashes on the forehead to mark this somber day (Catholics, Anglicans, Lutheran, and some Methodists). The length of Lent is derived from the 40 days that Jesus spent in the wilderness being tempted by Satan, therefore many devout observers of Lent will also fast, pray and abstain from things of pleasure during this time. In this light Ash Wednesday becomes a call to worship through self-examination, repentance, prayer, Bible reading, self-denial, meditation on the life of Christ and His death, and of giving of oneself to those who suffer or are in need. The ashes placed on the forehead during the Ash Wednesday service echo the words of Gen. 3:19, “You are dust and to dust you shall return” and they are worn until they wear off.
Ashes are widely used as a symbol of mourning throughout Scripture (Gen. 18:27; Job 2:8; Jonah 3:5-10; Lk. 10:13). Ashes could also signify repentance (Job 42:3-6). In Scripture, the act of repenting carries both a physical reality and a cerebral reality. Simply put, it is a change both in action and in the mind. Richard’s Complete Bible Dictionary defines repentance as, “A deep, radical change of both perspective and commitment, resulting in a moral and spiritual transformation”. In the Old Testament this was pictured in the use of the word shuv which meant “to turn” and was often used in conjunction with the prophets’ call for Israel to turn away from idols and turn to God (Is. 45:22; Jer. 18:11; Ezk. 14:6). John the Baptist and Jesus called for similar acts of repentance (Mt. 3:2, 4:17; Mk. 1:4, 14-15; Lk. 13:3, 5) as did Peter concerning the Gospel (Acts 2:38, 3:19).
Repentance is the starting point of the Gospel. Both John the Baptist and Jesus emphasized it as an act of faith (Mt. 3:1-2; 4:17; Mk. 1:14-15; Lk. 3:1-3). In Paul’s writings, metanoia, or repentance is a life changing decision. When someone repents it changes the course or direction of his/her life. Although it contains some emotion (2 Cor. 7:10) it is more closely associated with the mental recognition that God’s gift of salvation is greater than any other offer life presents which brings about saving faith (Rom. 2:4; 2 Tim. 2:25; 2 Pet. 3:9). As Richards puts it, “True faith in God will always be expressed by turning from evil and turning to the Lord.” Ash Wednesday reminds us that we all struggle with our mortality and sin. It is a great time to examine our priorities and the way we spend our time and money. It is also a time to remember the price that was paid for our salvation and that the best decision we can make in life is to put Jesus before everything else. Lent is more than a time period to plan Easter travels, holiday meals or a couple weeks where we give up something we love. It is a time to test our soul and see if it’s heading in the right direction.
Ann H. LeFevre, M. Div.
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