Preparing for Ash Wednesday and Lent
I did not grow up with lent or Ash Wednesday. The first time I experienced it was when I was pregnant and was in my chaplaincy at the hospital in Pittsburgh, PA. I walked around the hospital and gave ashes and prayed with anyone and everyone who wanted prayer. In the hall way all would stop for just a momnet and doctors and nurses and families would all come to the same level for just a moment and receive ashes and a prayer. Then they all went back to their lives and positions. It was so powerful. After that day I vowed to always observe Ash Wednesday.
So, what is Ash Wednesday? 2023 Guide for Christians Celebrating. Each year, Ash Wednesday marks the beginning of Lent. In 2023, Ash Wednesday will be February 22nd. Ash Wednesday focuses the Christian’s heart on repentance and prayer, usually through personal and communal confession.
Each year, Ash Wednesday marks the beginning of Lent and is always 46 days before Easter Sunday. Lent is a 40-day season (not counting Sundays) marked by repentance, fasting, reflection, and ultimately celebration. The 40-day period represents Christ’s time of temptation in the wilderness, where he fasted and where Satan tempted him. Lent asks believers to set aside a time each year for similar fasting, marking an intentional season of focus on Christ’s life, ministry, sacrifice, and resurrection.
What might you set aside to think about these things? It needs to be something that gives you time to use to think of Christ’s life, ministry, sacrifice, and resurrection. It does not have to be huge. It only takes a moment.
Who Celebrates Ash Wednesday? Have you ever noticed, usually in February or March, a lot of people walk around with an ash cross on their foreheads once a year? You probably knew it had something to do with Lent, but you weren’t sure why the ash cross was significant. Or maybe, you grew up in a Catholic or Protestant church that held Ash Wednesday services each year, so you’re already familiar with the service but aren’t too sure about the history of Ash Wednesday and Lent and what they have to do with the Christian faith. Often called the Day of Ashes, Ash Wednesday starts Lent by focusing the Christian’s heart on repentance and prayer, usually through personal and communal confession. This happens during a unique Ash Wednesday service.
What Happens on Ash Wednesday? During Mass (for Catholics) or worship service (for Protestants), the priest or pastor will usually share a penitential and reflective sermon. The mood is solemn - many services will have long periods of silence and worshipers will often leave the service in silence. Usually, there is a responsive passage of Scripture, usually centered around confession, read aloud about the leader and congregation. Attendees will experience communal confession and moments where they are prompted to confess sins silently and pray. After all of this, the congregation will be invited to receive the ashes on their foreheads. Usually, the priest or pastor will dip his finger into the ashes, spread them in a cross pattern on the forehead, and say, “From dust you came and from dust you will return.”
But what is the Meaning of the Ashes? In many congregations, the ashes are prepared by burning palm branches from the previous Palm Sunday. On Palm Sunday, churches bless and hand out palm branches to attendees, referencing the Gospels’ account of Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem, when onlookers lay palm branches on his path. The ashes of this holiday symbolize two main things: death and repentance. “Ashes are equivalent to dust, and human flesh is composed of dust or clay (Genesis 2:7), and when a human corpse decomposes, it returns to dust or ash.” “When we come forward to receive ashes on Ash Wednesday, we are saying that we are sorry for our sins and that we want to use the season of Lent to correct our faults, purify our hearts, control our desires and grow in holiness so we will be prepared to celebrate Easter with great joy” (The CatholicSpirit.com). With this focus on our own mortality and sinfulness, Christians can enter into the Lent season solemnly while also looking forward in greater anticipation and joy to the message of Easter and Christ’s ultimate victory over sin and death.
The history and beginnings of Lent aren’t clear. *Lent has likely been observed: “since apostolic times, though the practice was not formalized until the First Council of Nicaea in 325 CE.” Christian scholars note that Lent became more regularized after the legalization of Christianity in A.D. 313. St. Irenaeus, Pope St. Victor I, and St. Athanasius all seem to have written about Lent during their ministries. Most agree that “by the end of the fourth century, the 40-day period of Easter preparation known as Lent existed, and that prayer and fasting constituted its primary spiritual exercises.”
What is most important though is that we use it to remind ourselves of what Jesus did for us and take the time to look at ourselves. Time of reflection is always necessary in life so that we can grow and understand God in our lives. If you’d like to start thinking through and observing Lent and Ash Wednesday, here are a few verses specific to Ash Wednesday to meditate and reflect on, and then a prayer you can pray to observe the day.
· Our Creation: Genesis 2:7 - “Then the LORD God formed a man from the dust of the ground and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life, and the man became a living being.”
· Our Curse: Genesis 3:19 - “By the sweat of your brow you will eat your food until you return to the ground since from it you were taken; for dust you are and to dust you will return.”
· Our Cry of Repentance: Psalm 51:7- 10 - “Cleanse me with hyssop, and I will be clean; wash me, and I will be whiter than snow. Let me hear joy and gladness; let the bones you have crushed rejoice. Hide your face from my sins and blot out all my iniquity. Create in me a pure heart, O God, and renew a steadfast spirit within me.”
*A Prayer for Ash Wednesday:
Lord, Holy One, have mercy on us. We confess our sins to you. We have fallen short of your glory and without your mercy and grace, we would be dust. We repent now. Lord, as we enter this Lenten season, be near us. Help us, by your Holy Spirit, to feel the proper conviction and repentance for our sin. Help us, by your Spirit, to have the strength to overcome the enemy.
Thank you, Lord, that Easter is coming! Death has no sting, no victory, because of Jesus! Glory and honor and praise to His name! Thank you for rescuing us. Help us keep the weight and the joy of this season in our hearts as we move through the next several weeks. Help us bear the good fruit of your Spirit.