The Meaning of Lent
Lent is a season when Christians focus on simple living, prayer, and fasting in order to grow closer to God. This time in the Christian season comes forty days before Easter; lent excludes Sundays. Ash Wednesday, the day after Mardi Gras (Fat Tuesday), usually begins with a service where we recognize our mortality, repent of our sins, and return to our loving God. We recognize life as a precious gift from God, and we may make resolutions and commit to change our lives over the next forty days so that we might be more like Christ.
In an Ash Wednesday service, usually a minister or priest marks the sign of the cross on a person’s forehead with ashes. In Jewish and Christian history, ashes are a sign of mortality and repentance. Mortality, because when we die, our bodies eventually decompose and we become dust/dirt/ash. Repentance, because long ago, when people felt remorse for something they did, they would put ashes on their head and wear “sackcloth” (scratchy clothing) to remind them that sin is uncomfortable and leads to a sort of death of the spirit. This was their way of confessing their sins and asking for forgiveness.
What the Ashes Represent
On what we now call Palm Sunday, Jesus rode a donkey into Jerusalem while people waved palms and cheered him on. Less than a week later, Jesus was crucified. The palms that were waved in joy became ashes of sorrow. We get ashes for Ash Wednesday by saving the palms from Palm Sunday, burning them, and mixing them with a little oil. It’s symbolic. At an Ash Wednesday service, people are invited to come forward to receive the ashes. The minister will make a small cross on your forehead by smudging the ashes. While the ashes remind us of our mortality and sin, the cross reminds us of Jesus’ resurrection (life after death) and forgiveness. It’s a powerful, non-verbal way that we can experience God’s forgiveness and renewal as we return to Jesus.
The Purpose of Fasting
- First, fasting is meant to prepare people. It is meant to put them in a proper attitude, allowing God to conform them to God’s purpose and to God’s will.
- Second, fasting is meant to cleanse. It represents a purging for the physical body, ridding it of impurities.
- Third, fasting is meant to strengthen people spiritually. It is meant to help them think more clearly about the spiritual challenges they are facing and those they are about to face as they seek to grow closer to God.
Adapted from Ash Wednesday Bulletin, Grace United Church of Christ, Sauk Village, IL (2017) and “The Rough Side of the Mountain,” a sermon by Rev. Dr. Lorrie C. Reed (2014).