“After learning this, I turned to the Lord God, praying diligently, begging for His mercy, grieving and fasting in sackcloth and ashes.” ~ Daniel 9:3 (The Voice)
Lent officially begins today, Ash Wednesday (March 1, 2017), and will last 40 days (46 counting Sundays) through sundown the Saturday before Easter Sunday (April 16). It’s duration is intentionally equivalent to the 40 days that Christ spent in the wilderness (Matthew 4:1-2).
You won’t find scriptures commanding or even urging us to observe Ash Wednesday and/or Lent, however Christian people have been observing Lent since before the 2nd century, and Ash Wednesday since at least the 10th century.
Why a Day of Ashes?
The use of ashes in public worship goes back to Old Testament times (Judaism). Ashes symbolized mourning, mortality and penance:
- Esther 4:1 – Mordecai put on sackcloth and ashes when he heard of the decree of King Ahasuerus (or Xerxes, 485-464 BC) of Persia to kill all of the Jewish people in the Persian Empire.
- Job 42:6 – Job repented in sackcloth and ashes.
- Daniel 9:3 – “I turned to the Lord God, pleading in earnest prayer, with fasting, sackcloth and ashes (foretelling the Babylonian captivity of Jerusalem)
- Jonah 3:5-6 – After Jonah’s preaching of conversion and repentance, the town of Ninevah proclaimed a fast and put on sackcloth, and the king covered himself with sackcloth and ashes.
Jesus Himself also talked about using ashes when he cursed Chorazin and Bethsaida, two villages that refused to repent after he went to them and performed great works (miracles).
- Matthew 11:21 – Woe to you, Chorazin! And woe to you, Bethsaida! Had I gone to Tyre and Sidon and performed miracles there, they would have repented immediately, taking on sackcloth and ashes.
The early Church continued the use of ashes following Christ’s death and resurrection for the same reason – penance – from before the second century in a number of ways including issuing last rites to the dying and in confession.
Since at least the Middle Ages, the use of ashes has marked the beginning of Lent. And Lent is, of course, when we focus on remembering our own mortality and mourn for ourselves because of our own sins.
The ritual for the Day of Ashes is found in the earliest editions of the Gregorian Sacramentary which dates at least to the 8th century. About the year 1000, an Anglo-Saxon priest named Aelfric preached:
“We read in the books both in the Old Law and in the New that the men who repented of their sins bestrewed themselves with ashes and clothed their bodies with sackcloth. Now let us do this little at the beginning of our Lent that we skew ashes upon our heads to signify that we ought to repent f our sins during the Lenten fast.”
Ash Wednesday Today
In our present rituals for Ash Wednesday, we typically use ashes made from the burned palm branches distributed on the Palm Sunday of the previous year. The pastor has most likely prayed over and blessed the ashes just as he did the palm fronds the year before.
The ashes are mixed with Holy Water and/or Anointing Oil. The presiding pastor then lightly makes a cross on the foreheads of those faithful who are present, saying, “Remember, from dust you came, and to dust you shall return.”
Whether you’re able to attend an actual Ash Wednesday service or not, I encourage you to observe the 40 days of Lent beginning today.
“During Lent, we enter into a season of preparation, self-reflection and repentance when we seek to literally “turn around” and realign our lives and focus toward God.”UMC, What We Believe
A Little More on the History of Lent
Irenaeus was the first to write about Lent in 203 A.D. in a letter to Pope St. Victor I: “The dispute is not only about the day, but also about the actual character of the fast. Some think that they ought to fast for one day, some for two, others for still more; some make their ‘day’ last 40 hours on end. Such variation in the observance did not originate in our own day, but very much earlier, in the time of our forefathers.” (Eusebius, History of the Church, V, 24)
After Christianity was legalized in 313 A.D. under Emperor Constantine, Lent became a more regular observation. The Council of Nicea (325 A.D.) indirectly made it a formal observation when they noted in their disciplinary canons that two provincial synods (a gathering of church officials or churches) should be held each year, “one before the 40 days of Lent.”
“Forty days” is a significant number in the Bible:
On Mount Sinai, preparing to receive the Ten Commandments, “Moses stayed there with the Lord for 40 days and 40 nights, without eating any food or drinking any water” (Ex 34:28). Elijah walked “40 days and 40 nights” to the mountain of the Lord, Mount Horeb (another name for Sinai) (I Kgs 19:8). Most importantly, Jesus fasted and prayed for “40 days and 40 nights” in the desert before He began His public ministry (Mt 4:2).
Once the 40 days of Lent were established, the next development concerned how much fasting was to be done. In Jerusalem, for instance, people fasted for 40 days, Monday through Friday, but not on Saturday or Sunday, thereby making Lent last for eight weeks. In Rome and in the West, people fasted for six weeks, Monday through Saturday, thereby making Lent last for six weeks. Eventually, the practice prevailed of fasting for six days a week over the course of six weeks, and Ash Wednesday was instituted to bring the number of fast days before Easter to 40. History of Lent
Now, get your Ash in church!