Holy Days: Ash Wednesday And Lent


Part of Holy Days – A series of articles dedicated to our Christian/Hebraic holidays and observances.

Hi. My name is Mandy. And I’m a 30-something guitar-playing worship leader & creative church staffer at a contemporary church and I love the ebb and flow of the Christian Calendar year.

Now, everybody say “Hi Mandy.”

Glad we got that out of the way. And what better time to confess my affection for the Christian Calendar than with my favorite holy day right around the corner.

I’d say Ash Wednesday is the birthplace of my love for the Christian Calendar. In my teen years, I was the only young person chilling out at the Ash Wednesday service. I sat in the back by myself, thumbed through order of worship, and waited for the sticky cross to be rubbed on my forehead. Honestly, I wasn’t there to listen; I was there to look back on my own depravity and, by my presence, to declare my unceasing need for a Savior. Ash Wednesday tugged in my teenage heart. And has since called me to return to a back seat year after year.

For Christians around the world, Ash Wednesday marks (no pun intended) the start of the Lenten season. It’s the day that Mardi Gras attendees drag themselves hung-over into Mass, swearing off all the pleasures of the night before. Ok. ok. Maybe not all Ash Wednesday observers are trying to confess away the past 24 hours. But there is a connection. Mardi Gras (Fat Tuesday) came to be a “last hurrah” before entering the Lenten fast. At least that’s my cultural understanding, so don’t quote me on a bit of that.

Maybe it’s best to check with the scholars: Ash Wednesday “was in use by the fifth century, and the meaning of it was derived from the use of ashes as a penitential symbol, which originated in the Old Testament and was used in the church as early as the second century to symbolize repentance” (p. 224, from Worship Old & New by Robert Webber). Historically speaking, “Lent developed as a season of preparation and formation for initiation into the church at Easter. The forty days of preparation involved the whole church, not only those preparing to be baptized. …This was also a period when any people who had lapsed from the church could be reconciled and restored to fellowship” (p. 228, Introduction to Lenten Worship, an article by Richard Lobs III, feat’d in The Services of the Christian Year).

Did y’all catch that, or did you skip over that paragraph? Read it.

And then imagine your whole church taking 40 days to get ready before welcoming in new believers. And also to take that time to reconcile with members of the Body that have wandered out of fellowship… Whew. How many extra buckets of fried chicken would we need to order for the church-wide Easter picnic!?

Back to the scholars: Lent is more than just a time of fasting. Lobs says we should pursue “our continuing experience of living in the presence of the Lord in daily use of the means of grace: prayer, the reading and meditating on Scripture, fasting as well as works of mercy. To such the journey of Lent invites us afresh every year” (p. 228, Introduction to Lenten Worship, an article by Richard Lobs III, feat’d in The Services of the Christian Year).

So where are we going with all this? Aside from rejoicing in the fact that I can eat chocolate and still be considered a devoted Christian, I want to challenge us to approach Lent in a different way this year. Let’s add something to our lives. Let’s add a simple discipline or two that will draw us closer to God, instead of fasting and pulling away from things.

And here are some ways we can lead ourselves, and even lead our church, in a time of Lenten penitence (Don’t you just love that word? It makes me feel smart.)

Practical ideas for the individual:

Instead of dropping chocolate or meat or sugar or caffeine, try adding something:

  • Bring on an extra daily reading, taken from the schedule in the Revised Common Lectionary
  • Add an extra time of prayer to the beginning or ending of your day.
  • Incorporate a moment of meditation in your day or week. One way to do this is by using a reading schedule and note-taking platform like Youversion.com which offers a number of reading plans and embedded note-taking elements on the scripture you read. Spend at least 10 minutes thinking and writing about what you read. Really let your mind interact with the passage.
  • Take a personal retreat, even if only for a long walk, or a long weekend, to reflect and do some self-examination.

Practical ideas for the worship service:

  • Teach through the parables during this season, or teach through the stages of the cross as we prepare our hearts for Good Friday. Center scripture readings around the Lectionary.
  • Include prayers of confession during your service–guided moments where the congregation acknowledges it’s sin and returns, again and again, to the Lord.
  • Create reconciliation teams that will reconnect with some of the congregation that haven’t been around lately. Or encourage small groups to reach out to long-lost members.
  • Have a special baptism service on Easter morning — welcoming new Christians into the congregation on the day that Christians around the world have entered the Kingdom throughout history.
  • Prepare a worship space that reflects the values of lent–austerity, simplicity, devotion.

This year Ash Wednesday is March 9, 2011. This marks the beginning of the Lenten Season (Lent) which is observed for the next 40 days (not including Sundays) until Easter.