Ash Wednesday begins the season of Lent but is not well understood in its own right. Ashes have signified public mourning in Biblical lands since Old Testament times. Jesus himself, in Matthew 11, chided two Galilean towns by saying had Tyre and Sidon (cities on the Mediterranean shore) seen the same miracles worked in these two towns, their people would have covered themselves in sackcloth and ashes as a sign of repentance.
Ash Wednesday’s historical connection to Lent is a bit obscure, having origins dating back to the 6th century while Lent has been observed since the 3rd century, if not before. Since Lent is intended to rouse spiritual reflection and identification with sins committed in the past, one of the popes of the period likely instituted Ash Wednesday as a marker for the beginning of this season, which ends on Good Friday. When it was instituted, Ash Wednesday was purportedly the day on which those who had sinned and been ostracized from the church, desiring readmittance, would begin their public penance.
I hear you, enough history already. If one took the time to read up on all of the “rules” for Lent expounded by the Catholic Church (especially in days gone by), it is no wonder few Christian (Protestant) denominations subscribe to Lenten practices today. So why would a Christian want to observe Lent, and Ash Wednesday? Even if the practice of Lent got bogged down over the years with many useless rituals, the ancient church was right to recognize that Christians, then and now, need to take time to reflect on their lives. Are we spending time with God in prayer, and Bible reading and meditation? Do our attitudes and actions affirm what we claim we believe? Probably not. We are all sinners (more on that later), and there will always be discrepancies between what we believe and our thoughts and behavior. The trouble is, most of us don’t spend enough time reflecting on our lives to really engage ourselves in the process. Lent provides that opportunity, in a formalized fashion.
I spent decades of my Christian life not acknowledging Lent; only in the past dozen or so years have I attempted some of its traditional practices. What I’ve learned has surprised, even delighted me. I hope you’ll keep reading, as I share some of my discoveries.