Today is Ash Wednesday, the first day of Lent.
Ash Wednesday occurs 40 days (not counting Sundays) before Easter and is traditionally meant to be a time of reflection and repentance leading up to Easter. It’s called Ash Wednesday because of the primarily liturgical tradition of putting ashes on people’s foreheads in the shape of the cross during services on that day. The ashes are meant to symbolize repentance, an echo of the tradition of throwing ashes over your head to show humility and sadness because of sin. When the ashes are put on the forehead, the minister says, “Remember (O man) that you are dust, and to dust you shall return”, or “Repent, and believe the Gospel.”
That’s the start of Lent. And Lent is about remembering. And reflection. And repentance. It’s meant to be a time to focus for 40 days on the nature of the gospel, namely that Jesus was crucified for our sins. And we are meant to approach that reality which Easter marks with a spirit of humility. Traditionally, you’re supposed to “give something up” for Lent. It’s a fast for 40 days.
So why do this? Seems like a pretty outdated practice. And let’s be honest – we don’t like to fast from anything for any amount of time. So here’s a few reasons why I believe we should participate in Lent (and maybe fasting as a whole):
1. Lent reveals sin that we didn’t know was there. This is the case with all fasting. Let’s say you fast from food for a couple of days. You’re going to find yourself irritable and impatient. Let’s be clear, though – you’re not irritable because you’re hungry. The hunger has just brought to the surface these latent tendencies inside of you. So through fasting and Lent, you become aware of hidden sin lurking way, down deep.
2. Lent keeps the cross at the forefront of our minds. When you choose to go without something meaningful to you, you’re going to have alot of moments when you wish you could have it, whether it’s chocolate, meat, television, sex, or whatever else. Each and every one of those moments, you have an opportunity to think about the cross. It’s a steady and reliable reminder of the gospel and a way to ensure that we preach the gospel to ourselves every day.
3. Lent helps us be appropriately emotional about the gospel. A few years ago, I gave up meat for Lent. And every single time I saw someone eating a hamburger, I was sad. And then on Easter, when we had an 8 pound ham, I came down at 5:30 on Easter morning and ate with joy. As silly as that is, it helped me gain a small bit of sadness leading up to Good Friday and then a small measure of the great celebration of Easter Sunday.
4. Lent reminds us how reliant we are on God. You wouldn’t think that giving up sugar or caffeine for 40 days would be hard, right? But there are those moments when you’ve just got to have a Snickers. Or a coke. And in those moments, you have an opportunity to trust the Lord for the ability to say, “Wait.” It’s another way to move us (though in admittedly small ways) to remembering that we are completely reliant on God. After all, we can’t even stop drinking Mountain Dew for a season on our own.
So today is day 1. Let’s approach Easter and the resurrection of the Lord Jesus together. Mindfully.
(This article is reprinted from my blog from Ash Wednesday, 2010).