Ashes are mentioned a lot in the Old Testament, and it is there that Ash Wednesday has its beginning. Ashes were often referred to as a sign of mourning for personal and national disasters and prayers for God’s guidance. Ashes also remind us of the temporary nature of our bodies.
One of my favourite Old Testament scriptures tells us that Jesus will replace our ashes with a garland; ‘to give them a garland instead of ashes’. Isaiah 61:3 NRSV. Which means Jesus will replace our sorrows and death with something wonderful and beautiful.
Ash Wednesday marks the beginning of Lent. A poignant service is held in many churches, where ashes are marked on the forehead of participants to remind them of their mortality and Christians all around the world then begin a period of six weeks during which they reflect on their spiritual lives and relationship with God.
What does Lent mean?
The word Lent comes from an Anglo-Saxon word meaning to lengthen and refers to the lengthening days of spring in the Western hemisphere.
The forty days of Lent represent the forty days Jesus spent in the desert being tempted by the devil.
In the early church, this was a time for new converts to fast, pray, and reflect before their baptism at Easter.
It gradually evolved into something all Christians were encouraged to do before Easter.
Lent lasts forty days (not counting Sundays), starting on Ash Wednesday and ending on the last Saturday (Holy Saturday) before Easter Day.
It is a time for practising self-discipline in a chosen area, reflecting on Christ’s death and resurrection and what that means to us today.
The mood is lightened somewhat by Mothering Sunday, which in the UK falls halfway between Ash Wednesday and Easter Day.
Reflection on Ash Wednesday and Lent
When someone close to us dies, we grieve their loss as we reflect on their lives. So too, Ash Wednesday is a time to reflect on ways we are lost in our own lives. Perhaps we have unresolved conflict with a loved one, are not taking enough time to study the scriptures, or have let our prayer life lapse.
Whatever it is, we are all lost to some extent, and somehow, something gets in between us and God and damages our relationships with one another, to a small or greater degree.
Ash Wednesday is a time to contemplate life’s fragility and our individual mortality. It is a time when we can pause and review where God is in our lives.
Lent is a time to contemplate ways to improve our relationship with Jesus and work out ways to draw closer to him.
It is a bit like making New Year’s Resolutions – only we could say we are making Holy Resolutions.