The season of Lent is coming up again very soon. Ash Wednesday is February 14th and Easter is April 1st. As you probably know, Lent is the forty-day season between Ash Wednesday and Easter Sunday. The forty days recall a series of Biblical events and images, such as Moses receiving the Law on Mount Sinai (Exodus 34:28), Israel’s forty year wandering the wilderness (Numbers 32:13), Elijah’s fast and journey to Mount Horeb (1 Kings 19:8), and Jesus’ fast and temptation in the wilderness (Matthew 4:1-11). The forty days do not include the Sundays which are “in Lent” not “of Lent” because traditionally the fasts associated with Lent were relaxed somewhat on those days. Lent is a time for solemn reflection on the depth of our sin, for repentance, and for renewed attention to Jesus’ suffering in his betrayal, arrest, crucifixion, and death.
Lent is one of my favorite times of the church year. Our contemporary American culture at almost every turn masks and diminishes the realities of sin and death in our world. Lent brings them to the forefront of our lives. We treasure all things casual and comfortable, but Lent forces us to deal with the ruin, misery, and pain of our death. We prefer to keep our lives busy and our schedules full, but Lent calls us to draw back, to fast, to give something up, so that we can have leisure to hear God’s Word of Law and Gospel.
One of my favorite practices of Lent occurs at the very beginning in the Ash Wednesday service. At the beginning of the service, it is offered and encouraged to receive ashes on the forehead. This symbol is perhaps the most powerful symbol in Lent. The ashes place on us in a visible and tangible way our own sin and call us to repentance. Throughout the Scriptures, ashes are used to signify repentance (Jeremiah 6:26). The repentant put on sackcloth (an itchy, uncomfortable fabric) and placed ashes on their heads to visualize to himself and others the horror of sin (Lamentations 6:26). Sometimes they donned sackcloth and ashes when they were grieving, suffering, or mourning death, but they recognized that all suffering, death, and pain are consequences of the fallen, sinful nature of humanity. Every occasion for mourning was also an occasion for repentance.
Receiving ashes also reminds us of our mortality. When the pastor places the ashes on your forehead, he also speaks a word of God’s law to you, “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return,” echoing God’s curse he spoke to Adam when he fell into sin in Genesis 3:19. It also echoes the words which will one day be spoken at our funerals, when our bodies are committed to the ground, “ashes to ashes, dust to dust.” The imposition of ashes hurts, because it means death to our sinful nature. It means swallowing our pride, admitting that we are dead in our sins and trespasses, and acknowledging that because of sin our bodies will one day return to dust.
But there is also hope on Ash Wednesday. Yes, dust is wiped on our foreheads as a symbol of our sin and death, but it’s wiped in the shape of the cross. We remember our sins and death, but more importantly, we remember that our Lord Jesus took on our flesh, became dust and ashes, so that he could redeem us and raise us up from the dust in the resurrection.
I look forward to remembering this great promise with you this coming Ash Wednesday, and walking the forty-day journey of Lent alongside you, as we travel to the cross and the empty grave.