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, a reference to 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. 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.
With this focus on our own mortality and sinfulness, Christians can enter the Lent season solemnly, while also looking forward in greater anticipation and joy of the message of Easter and Christ’s ultimate victory over sin and death.
Here are the important dates of Lent and when they occur in 2019:
|Important Dates of Lent||Brief Overview of Significance||2019 Date|
|Ash Wednesday||The beginning of Lent, a day of reflection and repentance from sin||March 6, 2019|
|Palm Sunday||Celebrates Jesus’s triumphant entry into Jerusalem||April 14, 2019|
|Holy Week||The week leading up to Easter||April 14- April 20, 2019|
|Maundy Thursday||Commemorates the foot washing and Last Supper of Jesus Christ with the Apostles||April 18, 2019|
|Good Friday||Commemorates the crucifixion of Jesus and his death at Calvary||April 19, 2019|
|Easter Sunday||Celebrates the resurrection of Jesus from the dead and his victory over sin and death.||April 21, 2019|
The history and beginnings of Lent aren’t clear. According to Britannica.com, 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.”
As far as the exact rules and practices of Lent, those have changed over the years. “In the early centuries fasting rules were strict, as they still are in Eastern churches,” notes Britannica.com. “One meal a day was allowed in the evening, and meat, fish, eggs, and butter were forbidden. The Eastern church also restricts the use of wine, oil, and dairy products. In the West, these fasting rules have gradually been relaxed. The strict law of fasting among Roman Catholics was dispensed with during World War II, and only Ash Wednesday and Good Friday are now kept as Lenten fast days.”
Catholic, Orthodox and many Protestants appreciate and observe Lent. Though Lent is not named or observed in the Bible, as Christianity Today notes, “the path of Lent—prayer, fasting, and generosity over a period of time—is heavily emphasized by the authors of and characters in the Bible, including Jesus. The Bible commends a lifestyle of worship and devotion that looks considerably like Lent. Therefore, while the word is absent in the Bible, the reality of Lent is woven throughout the whole of Scripture, as we have discovered.”
In his Gospel Coalition article Evangelicals Embracing (and Rejecting) Lent, Trevin Wax gives us an important reminder regardless of whether we personally observe Lent:
“I hardly think the church is suffering from too much fasting,” Wax says. “But I do think the church is suffering from too much self-righteousness (and I include myself in this indictment). Lent – being either for or against – can become a way of climbing up on to the pedestal.”
He goes on to say, “What is more important than the practices we take on is the heart attitude behind them. If there’s anything we should give up this time of year, it’s our sense of superiority either to those outside the church or those inside the church who do things differently than we do.”
Ash Wednesday: What has made congregations more accepting of Ash Wednesday rituals has been a broader reassessing of the liturgical traditions and teachings related to Holy Week, the days right before Easter, and to the preceding weeks of Lent. Congregations focused on Lent talk of preparation and spiritual discipline, mirroring Jesus’ 40 days of prayer and temptation in the desert before he was killed.
To some, Lent means “giving something up” — maybe chocolate or television or beer. But Galbreath encourages Presbyterians to take something on — to commit themselves to doing something that will deepen their faith during Lent, be it daily Scripture reading, working in a homeless shelter, or cutting back their own spending so they can give more to help others.
Lent lays a road that takes us from some of the dreary places in our life of faith to the joy of Easter, and all the places in between. Often it is used to remember one’s baptismal identity and think of it as a time not just to drag ourselves through the ashes, but also an opportunity to pick up this gift that God has laid before us, to meet a God of mercy and open arms.
Death is a part of life — we’re finite. Ash Wednesday is the one time of year the church is honest about that. We don’t live forever, so the choices we make and the things we do are important, because we’re only here for a short time.
Maybe Ash Wednesday especially this year is a way to talk about grief, not denying it or rushing to resurrection, but really holding death and resurrection in tension. It’s powerful to do that in community. The services conclude with a real celebratory mood, in the context of God’s love and grace. We’re forgiven, and we’re looking forward to the resurrection.
The Christian faith is not just a set of ideas or doctrines, but it’s a way of life. Lent is the perfect season to work on what that means.