One of the first things that the Bible tells us bout the Creation of man is that God created him from the dust. A little farther into the Book of Genesis, we are told "for dust thou art and unto dust shalt thou return". That may not be something that many think about very often but next week, with Ash Wednesday marking the beginning of Lent, it's a passage that will be foremost in my mind.
Although it's not a Holy Day of Obligation in my Catholic faith, it's an important observance and one I rarely miss. Other Christian denominations also observe Ash Wednesday including some Protestant denominations, including Anglicans, Episcopalians, Lutherans, United Methodists and Presbyterians.
So what is Lent or the Lenten season?
In simple terms, it's 46 days before Easter, counted as 40 days because Sundays aren't included in the total. The number 40 comes from the 40 days that Christ spent in the wilderness after he was baptized by John. Like Jesus, we are called to fasting, abstinence and penitence in the days leading up to the joyous celebration of Easter.
Ashes symbolize the fact that we are both human and mortal, that we are dust and to dust we will return. They are the ashes of the previous year's palms from Palm Sunday, used to mark the sign of a cross on the forehead of those who attend Ash Wednesday services. Many wear the cross of ashes throughout the day as a mark of witness to the world at large.
In the Catholic faith, Ash Wednesday is a solemn observance and so is Lent. Catholics fast on both Ash Wednesday and on Good Friday, although one small meal is permitted. Another Lenten observance is abstaining from meat on the Fridays during Lent. Until 1966, Catholics didn’t eat meat on any Friday throughout the year and some continue the custom. Many Catholics also give-up something for Lent, sometimes something they enjoy such as chocolate or something more spiritual such as doubt.
For Christians who observe Lent, it’s a time for fasting and prayer, for repentance, moderation and spiritual discipline. Additional Lenten Bible study groups are often formed for the season.
In doing these things, we are following Christ who fasted in the wilderness. In our abstinence and repentance, we are spiritually cleansing for Easter.
If you see me next Wednesday I will be wearing ashes on my forehead. Each year, I smile when well-meaning people tell me I have dirt or a smudge on my face.
Then I will begin the trek toward Easter and the joyous celebration of Christ's resurrection.
In 2020, Ash Wednesday will be observed on February 26 and Easter on Sunday, April 12.