20 February 2007

Ash Wednesday & Lent

February 21st is Ash Wednesday. Have you ever paid any attention to Ash Wednesday and the season of Lent leading up to Easter that it marks the beginning of? If not, you’re missing something full of power and meaning. Have trouble getting really excited about Easter? Maybe it’s because you’ve never really taken it as seriously as you should. Read on to be introduced to this helpful observance.

This practice dates back about a millennia, but the principle behind it is one spoken of throughout the Bible. People used threw or rubbed ashes on themselves as a sign of mourning and sorrow (e.g. 2 Samuel 15:32). It reminds us of our common mortality “…for dust you are and to dust you will return” (Gen. 3:19). With an eye toward Easter, and the death of Jesus on our behalf, Ash Wednesday marks the beginning of Lent (from Middle English meaning “spring”) which has become a way of seriously preparing oneself to mark the most important event in our life in a meaningful way. On Ash Wednesday, many faith traditions rub an ash cross on the forehead as a sign of this observance (the ashes typically coming from the burned remains of the palm fronds from the previous year’s Palm Sunday).
Lent refers to 40 days of devotion and discipline leading up to the day before Easter (a quick count of the calendar will total 46, but Sundays are not counted because they are always days of celebration and feasting). The purpose of this period of time is to examine yourself and seek a greater conformity to the mind and heart of Christ, as well as giving yourself over to more effective service to the world on His behalf. Typically, people will enter into some kind of fast, giving something up in recognition of this time of sober self-assessment. The point is to take Jesus’ Good Friday death and Easter Sunday resurrection seriously enough that we make it the central defining point of our year and character. We actively seek to alleviate the blockages in our lives that prevent God from acting freely in and through us.

The prophet Joel gives voice to the spirit behind Lent in this appeal:

"Even now," declares the LORD, "return to me with all your heart, with fasting and weeping and mourning." Rend your heart and not your garments. Return to the LORD your God, for he is gracious and compassionate, slow to anger and abounding in love, and he relents from sending calamity.

Most of us know about Lent through stories of people temporarily giving up chocolate, desserts, or television for the 40 day period. Often, the underlying joke is that these are things not good for us anyway, so it actually benefits us to give them up. That’s not the point. The point is that we give them up to benefit God and others. The point is that we give something up, yes, but also that we add something to our life that makes us more like and useful to Jesus. The point is not doing this for a brief window of time, but to use that time to stop one habit and build a new one that will carry into the rest of the year.

I encourage you to observe Lent this year by eliminating something from your life that keeps you from being as close to God as you could or that holds you back from serving others for His sake. I encourage you to use this as an opportunity to really scrutinize your heart and actions. And, I challenge you to do this for the long-term, not just temporarily. Each Sunday, we’ll have a brief focus on Lent that will prompt you to remember and think. A list of questions for self-examination and an Ash Wednesday prayer will be posted on OUT OF MY MIND on Wednesday.

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