What is Lent and why do people have ashes on their heads?2
Today, Wednesday, March 1st, you may notice people walking around with ashes on their foreheads. This is not some bizarre cult ritual, it is a symbol of Christian repentance. It is a part of Ash Wednesday, the first day of the season known as Lent. Lent covers the 40 days prior to what is known as ‘Holy Week,’ the week beginning with Palm Sunday and ending with Easter Sunday.
Wait, you say, is this one of those Catholic things? While it’s true that many in the Roman Catholic Church observe Lent, the majority of Christian churches in the world, regardless of denomination, celebrate it. And you are free to observe it or not. God will not be more or less pleased with you based on your Lent observance. As with many things in the Christian life, there is benefit to this practice, but there is also great freedom.
The idea behind observing Lent is to make this season more meaningful, and sometimes ritual can be very helpful in establishing discipline that gives order and meaning to our lives. Ask yourself, how many times has Easter come and gone and I barely took any time to reflect on the true meaning of the holiday (holy day), namely the suffering, death, and resurrection of Jesus? Lent is an attempt to identify with the life and sufferings of Jesus and to be renewed in the hope and joy of His resurrection.
One of the practices associated with Lent is fasting. Just as Jesus fasted in the wilderness for 40 days, so we want to identify with Jesus in His suffering if even in just a small way. There is no attempt to match His sufferings, which would be impossible, not to mention blasphemous. Nonetheless, there is much that God can teach us through the practice of fasting, especially as it is under-girded with prayer, particularly confession and repentance. The traditional fast of Lent is food; not every day, but usually on Ash Wednesday and then every Friday in Lent and then the three days from Maundy Thursday until Easter morning. However, there is much freedom to choose what you will fast from (caffeine, sweets, Facebook, TV, alcohol, shopping…) with the idea that it is something you enjoy and will suffer without. Sundays are considered feast days, days to celebrate life in Christ on the day He rose from the grave, so you do not need to fast on Sundays.
Prayer is essential in this process. It is not enough to starve yourself of certain things. You need to fill the void that is left with Jesus. This is the key with battling any addiction, we can’t just say ‘no’ to the addiction, we have to say ‘yes’ to God, whom we were trying to replace with the addiction in the first place. One of the things you will notice if you give something up that you truly enjoy, like food or sweets or caffeine, is that you will often become more edgy and angry; and that your usual way of coping with hard situations and hard people (for many people, eating and drinking) is not available to you. That’s when you realize how much you need Jesus. He is the One we should have been going to for help and strength all along. He is the One who encourages us, “do not be anxious about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God.”
So, if you do choose to participate in a Lenten fast, remember that this is a tradition and not a scriptural mandate. There is no righteousness to be won or lost, because our righteousness is found in the obedience and work of Christ. But, I think you will find, that if you give something up for Lent, you will find your joy increased when it is returned to you. Easter will not simply come and go, like too many holidays we were too busy to prepare for, it will become a deeper, richer celebration. And an added benefit is that, through your voluntary fasting, you might have learned a little more spiritual discipline; you might have learned that you can live without the things you thought were so important to your life, and learned that Jesus is the one thing you cannot live without.
“We rejoice in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not put us to shame, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit who has been given to us.” (Romans 5:3-5)