Wednesday February 10th marks the beginning of Lent season; the 40 days recognized in Lent are in remembrance of the 40 days of fasting that Jesus endured in the wilderness (46 days before Easter if the Sundays are counted). Lent is most typically observed by Roman Catholics and Lutheran, Methodist, Presbyterian and Anglican denominations. Though many Christians celebrate and practice Ash Wednesday with the traditional marking of ash in the shape of a cross on their forehead, there is no specific reference in the Bible for this practice to begin Lent and the celebration of Easter; however, various verses from the Bible reference the use of ash and fasting as a way to repent our sins to God. “But Tamar put ashes on her head, and tore the long robe that she was wearing; she put her hand on her head, and went away, crying aloud as she went” (2 Samuel 13:19 New Revised Standard Version) (NRSV).
Ash Wednesday is believed to be taken from ancient Jewish traditions that include fasting and penance. A penance is defined as a punishment undergone in token of penitence for sin or regret for one’s wrongdoing or sinning (Dictionary.com). The use of ash is a symbol to remind Christians of dust from which God made us. “By the sweat of your face you shall eat bread until you return to the ground, for out of it you were taken; you are dust, and to dust you shall return” (Genesis 3:19 NRSV). The marking of the cross of ash on an individual’s forehead is to symbolize our acceptance of sin and the regret of the wrongdoing or sin. The season of Lent is a time of reflection, penance, and fasting, which is believed to prepare Christians for the Resurrection of Christ on Easter Sunday, through this act of sacrifice by Christ; we attain redemption and are forgiven of our worldly sins.
The ash used on Ash Wednesday is made from burning palm leaves from the previous year’s Palm Sunday and mixing the ashes with either holy oil or water. The palms are blessed for Ash Wednesday. The ashes remind us of our sinning ways and our own mortality that we may become more aware of our own spirituality and repent for the sins we have committed. In the early history of the church, Ash Wednesday was a day for those who had sinned to repent their sins publically and to give those individuals an opportunity to be readmitted to the church. “Then I turned to the Lord God, to seek an answer by prayer and supplication with fasting and sackcloth and ashes” (Daniel 9:3 NRSV).
Fasting is a major part of Ash Wednesday and is considered an official fasting day (along with Good Friday) in many churches. Churches have a long history of fasting to show their repentance of their sins to God. The book of Acts talks of fasting and worshiping the Lord; “While they were worshiping the Lord and fasting, the Holy Spirit said, “Set apart for me Barnabas and Saul for the work to which I have called them.” Then after fasting and praying they laid their hands on them and sent them off” (Acts 13: 2-3 NRSV). The history of the church tells the importance of fasting and the spiritual value of fasting. However, Jesus warns not to be obvious when fasting or fasting to trying to only impress others. Fasting is to be spiritual and pure and represent the humility and sacrifice while acknowledging our sins.
The ashes not only represent penance, fasting, and seeking forgiveness of our sins, it also reminds that God is gracious and has mercy on those who seek him with repentant hearts. During Lent, we as Christians, call on God’s Devine mercy, love, and compassion to fill us during the season of Lent; as we reflect on prayer, penance, and forgiveness. “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand; repent, and believe in the Gospel” (Mark 1:15 NRSV).