For a time, I basically skipped the eleven o’clock news–especially the news part of it. Serving as a local church pastor in today’s troubled and stressed out world bone-tiring and soul-draining. You didn’t need any eleven o’clock anchor person to add to your stress and disturb your sleep. (I might turn on the news in time for the sports scores, unless one of the teams I was rooting for was creating stress with a losing streak).
One Wednesday evening, I broke my rule and absentmindedly watch the news while awaiting that evening’s Big Ten basketball scores. Something seemed odd about the newscaster, but it took me a while to notice. When I finally gave it my full attention I realized he had a black smudge on his forehead.
My initial thought was, “Some make-up girl is going to get chewed out for letting him get on camera like that,” and then it dawned on me. That dark smudge was in the form of a cross. And then the next thought arrived at the station. “It’s Ash Wednesday.”
Some of you are at this moment thinking, “Ash what…?”
For the partiers among us, Ash Wednesday is the next day after the debauchery and drunkenness of Mardi Gras. If you aren’t sleeping off that Tuesday (called “Fat Tuesday” by some), you may have actually seen some news person going on air to announce that it “…is Ash Wednesday and the season Christians call Lent has begun.”
I was serving a church at that time that considered Ash Wednesday “a catholic thing”and I had actually given it little more thought than as a reminder to get next Sunday’s Lenten sermon completed.
You won’t find Ash Wednesday in the Bible (nor the word “Christmas”for that matter.) It is what is called in liturgical churches “a moveable feast.” It is the first day of Lent, a season of confession and repentance, and occurs 46 days before Easter. It was not observed formally until somewhere in the 3rd of 4th centuries.
The Bible tells us that Jesus spent 40 days in the wilderness at the commencement of his public ministry–being tempted, and praying. The church uses the 40 days as a time dedicated to prayer, fasting, and repentance as a way to prepare for Easter, the celebration of the Resurrection. Sundays are excluded from the fast, hence the 46 days of Lent.
Ashes symbolize this period because ashes were used in the Old Testament.When a mourn repented of their sin, they dusted themselves in ashes as a sign of repentance and the death of the old person. On Ash Wednesday, ashes are placed on the forehead of the believer in a ceremony called “The Imposition of the Ashes.” They are placed in the form of a cross to remind us that our new life is the result of Jesus’ death on the Cross.
For those who take God seriously in their lives (and how serious sin is), it is a great time and service to begin a season of repentance.
(C) 2012 by Stephen L Dunn