Tomorrow is Ash Wednesday.
It is definitely NOT the most anticipated of all days on the calendar.
The bigger religious “holidays” are celebrated with colored lights or pastel eggs. The theme for Ash Wednesday is darkness and ashes.
We don’t observe the day with big meals or presents. Nope. It’s more about fasting and giving up something you love.
Other days get special songs and joyful singing. Ash Wednesday is more about mourning and repentance. Fun times, I know.
So, what is Ash Wednesday and why do I actually look forward to it?
Ash Wednesday marks the first day of Lent, which is the 46 days leading up to Easter. When I was a kid, the only people I ever heard talk about Lent were my Catholic friends. They would talk about giving something up and eating fish on Fridays. Even though I grew up in a Christian home, we didn’t have any traditions (at least any I can remember) surrounding this time on the church calendar.
So it was a big surprise to me about 12 years ago when the church I now attend announced they were having an Ash Wednesday service. We go to a non-denominational church that is on the opposite extreme from a traditional church with a liturgical service. We don’t have robes or choirs or priests or altars. In fact, we only take communion once a month.
I couldn’t imagine why I would want to attend a service at which the pastor was going to place ashes on my forehead. It felt so foreign to me. And incredibly awkward.
We went to that service, and I remember it changing the way I thought about Ash Wednesday and Lent.
Instead of feeling like a formal, ritualistic tradition that I didn’t understand, it was a time for me to pause and reflect on the coming weeks leading up to Good Friday, and ultimately Resurrection Sunday. For me, these days mark the most important days in history. But before I started recognizing Ash Wednesday and Lent, they had a tendency to sneak up on me in the busyness of life. I would be so focused on all of my day-to-day activities that before I could blink, it was time to color Easter eggs and make corn casserole. I longed for more time to really stop and take into account the impact of Christ’s death and resurrection and what it means to my everyday life.
For me, Ash Wednesday is all about the heart. It’s a time for me to examine my own heart. Where do I need to make changes in my life? Where could I repent of some things I need to get rid of? Where can I practice more humility? Why do I believe what I believe? Why did Christ die? And why does it matter?
The ashes are a physical reminder of the fact that we are created from dust and will eventually return to dust. I don’t think anyone really WANTS to think about that! But it helps me to take a break from my normal way of thinking, which is to take my days for granted. It’s a healthy practice to slow down and consider that this life won’t last forever and there is a reason I am here.
Lent is a time that people traditionally give something up, or fast. Sometimes, I have used this as an excuse to do something I needed to do anyway — like give up Coke or sugar or honey or Coke or candy… (Let’s face it… I’m a sugar addict!) There’s more to it than that.
“Fasting is the temporary abstinence of something good, in order to intensify our need for something greater.” That’s how Erin Moon explains it in her guide to Lent, called “O Heavy Lightness.” I’m looking forward to using her study to help me walk through the days leading up to Easter in a more meaningful way.
I don’t know if I will give something up this year. But if I do, I won’t be talking about it while I’m doing it. (I’ve messed this up in the past!… Hey, I’m new to this!) Part of the idea behind fasting is that it’s not something that you make a big deal about. You aren’t supposed to brag to other people about the thing you are agonizing over.
Finally, I like the observation of Ash Wednesday, and subsequently Lent, because of the way it fits into the rhythm of the year. In the Chicago area, we experience the intensity of the seasons. We have four incredibly distinct types of weather that create rhythms that carry us up and and down throughout the year. Other parts of the year are full of the warmth of sunshine, the joy of vacations, the smell of fall, the magic of Christmas and the promise of a new year.
Lent falls right between the end of winter and the beginning of spring. This can be a brutal season of waiting. We are desperately done with cold days, but we know we will have to wait several more weeks (or let’s face it, MONTHS!) before we get to experience the joy of spring.
That waiting feels like an analogy for what Lent is about. It’s 46 days of reflection, repentance and mindful awareness of our human frailty, followed by the incredible joy and celebration of the resurrection of our awesome Savior. I never enjoy a harsh winter, but I feel like the snow, ice and wind give me a better appreciation for sunshine and warm days.
Lent has a similar effect on me. Taking time each day to reflect on why Christ died and what it means to me makes the celebration of the Resurrection that much more full of hope and joy!
What about you? Do you observe Lent? Do you look forward to Ash Wednesday?
Let me know in the comment section below!