It’s Ash Wednesday – the beginning of Lent. I’ve written previously that as a Protestant, the whole season is considered optional. I’ve read up on it somewhat – but I’m not sure I entirely understand the logic of it. The culmination of Lent is Holy Week of which I’d recognize Easter as being the most important. It has nothing to do with the forty days leading up to Jesus’ last week. Rather, Lent is celebrating the forty days that Jesus spent in the wilderness at the start of his ministry – the time in which he fasted and then was tempted as recorded in Matthew 4:1-11, Mark 1:9-13, and Luke 4:1-13. For devout believers, it’s a time of fasting, of prayer, and of service.
Ash Wednesday services typically involve being marked with a cross of ashes on our foreheads – traditionally believers are reminded: “For dust you are and to dust you shall return.” Which is from Genesis 3:19. The ashes are from the palm fronts that were used and blessed in the previous year’s Palm Sunday.
The earliest mention of Lent is at the Council of Nicaea in the year 325 a.d. that suggests that long before the one church had splits and schisms, the whole church participated in Lent. While it’s true that it’s not a tradition or ritual that is explained in the Bible – it is a unique Christian practice that came as a result of being believers. I guess the early believers wanted to find a way to celebrate and live out their faith and they had to do that by writing their own songs and creating their own holy days.
In the Old Testament, ashes were related to pennance and to sorrow. Mordecai put on sackclock and ashes in the book of Esther once he heard the news that his people were to be destroyed. Job declares that he repents in dust and ashes and despises himself. We also know that 40 is a biblical number that symbolizes times of trials and testing – Moses lead the israelites through the wilderness for 40 years and he also stayed on the mountain for 40 days and 40 nights and he had the spies search out the Promsied Land for 40 days as well, rain fell for 40 day and 40 nights when the whole earth was flooded, three of the Judges led Israel for 40 years – the number shows up quite often in Scripture.
Lent continued to be practiced until Martin Luther threw the practice out in the 16th century, declaring it to be unbiblical. I talked earlier about the biblical qualifier being used to limit our options to only those things directly supported or commended by Scripture, causing all other ideas to be seen as, well, unbiblical. I just wonder – is it okay to just dismiss this celebration of faith just because it’s a part of tradition but not Scripture? Should a tradition like Winter Jam also be thrown out because it’s not biblical? Can Protestants find room for a little Lent in our Biblical faith? I think so. At least, I think we should learn more about Lent and Ash Wednesday before we dismiss them entirely. For centuries, millions of believers didn’t see Lent as a conflict of interest with their faith, rather, it enhanced their spirituality. If done right, it can be a good thing and that’s worth exploring.