Primer on Ash Wednesday
February 12, 2013

Audio Reading of this Post

What is Ash Wednesday?

Ash Wednesday is the first day of Lent, a season focused on the sufferings and cross of Jesus. But Jesus’ death on the cross cannot be separated from the cross we are called to bear in union with him, so Lent naturally also becomes a season of contrition and repentance. Ash Wednesday and Lenten observances can be traced back to the early church, though like every thing else, we have to filter the traditions handed down to us through the strainer of Scripture.

Lent is a 40-day block that culminates with “Holy Week” and ends with Easter. (Sundays do not count because the Lord’s Day is always a feast day!) The Lenten period of time is patterned after other periods of time associated with the number 40—including Israel’s 40-years of wilderness wandering, Nineveh’s 40-day period of repentance in sackcloth and ash in the book of Jonah, and Jesus’ 40 days of fasting and fighting Satan in the gospel accounts. Obviously, all of these “40” events have something in common with the major themes of Lent: suffering, testing, repentance, and Spiritual warfare.

Why are ashes used in this service?

There are several biblical examples of people using ashes as a visible and tangible sign of contrition over sin and mourning (e.g., 2 Samuel 13:19; Esther 4:1, 3; Job 2:8; 30:19; 42:6; Jonah 3:6; etc.). Ashes played an important role in the sacrificial system as well (e.g., Leviticus 4:12; 6:10, 11; Numbers 19:9, 10, 17; etc.). This is not just a ritual action invented by the early church; it has biblical roots. The ashes serve as a vivid reminder of sin and the death we all deserve. In the words of the Book of Common Prayer, “ashes to ashes and dust to dust”—we came from dust and, if left in our sins, will end up as ash. The ashes bring us face to face with the reality of sin and death.

Of course, the ashes are not on par with the water of baptism, or the bread and wine of communion. The ashes are not a sign and seal of the covenant and therefore not a sacrament in the traditional Protestant sense. But like the oil used in anointing for the sick (which is not sacramental either), the ashes can be a useful, tangible sign, appropriate to those occasions when God’s people wish to show their contrition and brokenness over sin.

What is the meaning of Lent? How can it help my Christian life?

Each season of the calendar focuses on a different part of the gospel narrative, and thus a different facet of the Christian life:

Advent – Christ’s promise

Christmas – Christ’s presence

Epiphany – Christ’s revelation

Lent – Christ’s suffering

Easter – Christ’s victory

Pentecost – Christ’s mission

Looked at this way, Lent is vital part of the story the calendar tells. To celebrate Easter without observing Lent is to want the crown without the cross, it’s to want the glory of the resurrection without the shame of Calvary. Do not make the mistake of making your own sufferings or self-denial the focus of Lent. Instead, keep the sufferings and death of Jesus central, remembering that our sufferings and death to self are corollaries of our union with the Savior who has already won our salvation. By observing the cycle of Lent and Easter, we are better prepared to live out the rhythm of the gospel, dying to sin and living the resurrection life of Christ (Romans 6:1ff).

Lent is only worth observing if we do so in light of coming Easter joy; but without proper observance of Lent, Easter celebrations are cheapened and depleted of their power. In our narcissistic, self-centered culture, Lent takes on special importance. You will know you have kept Lent rightly if you come to the end of it’s 40 day journey with a deeper faith in Christ crucified and a greater joy in the power of the risen Christ.

Why should Presbyterians have an Ash Wednesday service?

The church calendar is not binding on our consciences, but it is a tool that is full of the wisdom of the ages. The basic shape of the calendar is a tradition that pre-dates the Reformation and belongs to all of Christendom. God has been sanctifying his people for centuries, and an Ash Wednesday service (as well as the season of Lent as a whole) has proved to be helpful to that end. Like everything else under the sun, it can be abused, but rightly used, it’s a wonderful gift! In our day especially, a sentimentalized, artificially-sweetened version of the gospel is all too popular. The season of Lent in general, and Ash Wednesday in particular, remind us that the biblical narrative has some darker themes and threads as well, and we are not doing the Scriptures justice if we neglect them. We don’t get the full depth of the good news of Christ’s salvation unless we first wrestle with the bad news of our sin, mortality, and need for continual repentance. We want to be well-rounded Christians, shaped by the whole counsel of God, not just a few, favorite “happy” texts or topics. The church calendar imposes a discipline upon us, bringing us into contact with the more unsettling, uncomfortable teachings of the Word—but it does so in order that we may have a fuller and deeper joy when the celebrative seasons of the calendar roll around! My guess is that Easter will mean more to those who have been through Ash Wednesday (just as Christmas means more to those to observe Advent).

But Ash Wednesday and the like not only put us in touch with the overarching narrative of Scripture; the calendar also links us with the historic catholic church. Americans do not have to observe the 4th of July to be American—but there’s no doubt that doing so can encourage patriotism (a proper love for country), a deeper sense of appreciation for “the American story,” civic virtues, a sense of belonging, etc. In the same way, but much more deeply, the church year forms in us a Christian identity, a greater sense of our history, stronger bonds of fellowship.

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