By Brock Bondurant
For followers of Jesus Christ, Ash Wednesday is the beginning of the Lenten season, or ‘Lent'. The Lenten season is the 40 days leading up to Easter, the traditional day of celebration of the resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth from the dead.
How it Began:
Easter is a holiday of great importance to the Christian faith. Jesus, believed to be the long-awaited ‘Messiah’ or ‘Christ’ (anointed One), was crucified by the Roman Governor Pontius Pilate on Good Friday – the fifth day of the Jewish Passover Festival (Pesach) – dying around 3:00 pm. He was then buried but reported to be alive Sunday morning. That Sunday is now known as ‘Easter Sunday,’ or ‘Resurrection Day.’
More Than A Date:
Though Jesus was crucified and resurrected in Jerusalem during the Passover feast, the way our culture tells time has made Easter a “moveable feast” in the Church calendar. Instead of always being during Passover with a fixed date (Passover always begins on the evening of Nisan 15 of the Hebrew calendar), Easter is on a different date every year. While this may seem odd, this has been the way that Easter has been celebrated since 1583, when the Pope at the time dictated the change. So, now we observe Easter on different dates every year in our ‘Gregorian’ calendar, which lands it usually sometime in late March or early April. This year, Easter, according to the Roman Catholic and Protestant traditions, falls on March 31st (the Eastern Orthodox Church will celebrate on May 5th).
It Can Be Confusing:
This places Ash Wednesday on Valentine’s Day this year. (Fun fact: Valentine’s Day also began as a Christian feast to commemorate a couple of early Church martyrs, each named Valentine. Though instead of an egg-hiding bunny, this feast has been co-opted by a little god named ‘Cupid’ who wears diapers and shoots love arrows, unrelated to the original intent.)
Making it Clear:
As mentioned, Ash Wednesday kicks off Lent, where followers of Jesus traditionally fast for 40 days to prepare their hearts for the celebration coming at Easter. During these 40 days, it is typical for followers of Jesus to remove something from their lives that is pulling their affections away from God. Fasting typically involves abstaining from food, but participants also may choose to forgo certain luxuries in life or things that simply hinder their relationship to Jesus. Hebrews 12 focuses on the example Jesus set for us to follow, suggesting we “lay aside every weight and the sin that clings so closely… looking to Jesus the pioneer and perfecter of our faith, who for the sake of the joy that was set before him endured the cross…” In other words, it’s not just sin that hinders us, but it’s our disordered hearts that are distracted from giving full love to Jesus; our disordered schedules that prevent time for loving those whom Jesus instructs us to love. There are an infinite number of things that we may need to “lay aside” even if just for a time to cultivate a deeper intimacy with Jesus. Lent is about far more than ‘giving something up.’ It is about choosing the better thing – namely Jesus.
The 40 days of Lent fasting remind us of Jesus’ 40-day wilderness campaign where “He ate nothing at all” while being tempted by Satan (Luke 4). Fasting during Lent helps us identify with Him in those 40 days. It can also hearken us back to distant forefathers of the faith – Moses and the Israelites in their 40-year wandering period prior to entering the Promised Land.
Ash Wednesday is the day where this fast begins. It is a day to enter into the proverbial wilderness and focus ourselves in prayer. While not all denominations choose to observe Lent or Ash Wednesday tradition, many Christians have found it enriching when done with a pure heart: an intentional seeking of the Lord in their practice. During Ash Wednesday, it is common for participants to receive ashes in the sign of the cross on the foreheads. These ashes, made from the burning of the palm leaves of the previous year’s Palm Sunday (the celebration of the day Jesus entered Jerusalem, days before his execution), are a reminder of our fragility as humans. They remind us of our impending death to come, one day, echoing God’s words to Adam in Genesis 3:19:
“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.”
God crafted us from earth (Genesis 2:7), and one day we will return to it.
Perhaps one’s impending death doesn’t feel like the most encouraging sentiment, but Lent is connected to the much larger story of Easter and the celebration of the resurrection of both Jesus (which has happened) and of his followers (which will come one day). There can be no resurrection where there is no death. And that’s the point of Lent and Ash Wednesday.
Resurrection life only occurs on the opposite side of death.
Fasting makes sense only in light of the feasting to come. As we’re reminded of our death and as we fast, or “die to self,” we remember and look forward to our resurrection to come one day.
Invitation to Join:
This Lent, join the family of believers – the Church – that spans time, place, ethnicity, and culture as together we throw off everything that hinders us and run the race that Jesus has marked out for us. Consider participating in Lent this year. Consider joining a local celebration of Ash Wednesday and receive ashes in the sign of Jesus on your forehead, which is a reminder that we are marked by him, and he is coming back for us. He who has called us to life will not leave us to death. So, join in on Ash Wednesday and amplify the goodness of Easter.