Ash Wednesday this year is March 2nd, beginning the liturgical season of preparation for Easter, the season of Lent. Lent is the forty days of prayer and fasting observed by many faith traditions. The observance derives its name from the placing of repentance ashes on the foreheads of participants. Priests and pastors recite either, “Repent, and believe in the Gospel” or, “Remember you are dust, and to dust you shall return.”
The word “Lent” is derived from the Anglo-Saxon words lencten, meaning “Spring,” and lenctentid, which literally means not only “Springtide” but also was the word for “March,” the month in which the majority of Lent falls.
Ash Wednesday dates back to the 11th century. Yet, the tradition of receiving ashes has even earlier roots — to the ancient Hebrew custom of clothing oneself in sackcloth and dusting oneself with ashes as a sign of penance. The Bible does not explicitly detail this first day of Lent, but there are many instances of this repentant act in the Old Testament, such as Job 16:15.
Many traditional practices in Orthodox and liturgical churches involve fasting of some kind, giving up of meat or sweets or “rich foods.” In England the day before Ash Wednesday, Pancake Tuesday is observed as a last opportunity before the 40 days to use up butter and eggs–hence, the pancake-making. Churches observe the day as Shrove Tuesday, where parishioners are ‘shriven’ or absolved from their sins.
When I was growing up, Easter Sunday meant See’s candy eggs and Easter baskets and new dresses, complete with hats and gloves. My siblings and I probably went to church for the occasion–obviously, but my memories of that holiday have much more to do with fashion, not my faith.
I was not raised in a Christian home and when I found Jesus (or He found me) I began worshipping in an evangelical Protestant denomination. We didn’t follow the Church calendar, we don’t ‘do’ Advent or any of the organized observances like Lent.
I am grateful for a small book of reflections by author Kris Camealy that has been helpful in understanding the purpose of the season, to be made into the image of Christ. “Holey, Wholly, Holy” A Lenten journey of Refinement” says, “This is the hard refinement, the journey from holey (broken in sin) to wholly (surrendered) to holy.” (p. 8).
“It occurred to me that perhaps what God calls us to give up, really, is ourselves,” she says. “The paltry offerings we prefer to give up, (less TV, no chocolate, shopping for clothes), while they feel challenging, are perhaps less pleasing because we fail to give up the one thing that stands between us and Christ. Ourselves.” ‘Why Lent’, p. 8, italics mine.
Yes, giving up myself and my wants and my fleshly desires and sin (for that’s what it is) will be a lifelong journey. My daily life provides ample opportunity to do the same thing as often as needed to repent anew each day, be reminded of how much I need the Cross and God’s salvation–not just preceding the Easter Season, but every day of my life.
“Give up the struggle and the fight; relax in the omnipotence of the Lord Jesus; look up into His lovely face and as you behold Him, He will transform you into His likeness.
You do the beholding–He does the transforming. There is no shortcut to holiness.”
If there are no shortcuts, clearly this WILL be a lifelong process.
I will have to find new manna every day.
I will have to come back to God’s table to be fed.
I will have to come back to the feet of Jesus and lay my sins and shortcomings at the cross.
As we move into the Lenten season ahead to prepare our hearts for pondering Christ’s sacrifice, I pray we will have a heart of thankfulness that rests in the daily assurance of God’s grace that gives to us again and again and again, the grace that causes us to say, “I give up!” for Life.