What is Ash Wednesday and Lent
Lent is forty days of preparation for Easter, and is typically observed by fasting, prayer, repentance, searching the scriptures, and drawing near to God. Ash Wednesday, which fell on February 26 this year, is the beginning of the season of Lent. Although Ash Wednesday and Lent have ancient roots, they do not appear in the rituals of The United Methodist Church or our predecessor denominations until the 20th century.
Why Forty Days?
The number forty appears at significant places in the biblical story. For example:
o It rained forty days when Noah was on the Ark. He remained on the Ark another forty days after the water stopped rising.
o Moses spent forty days on Mount Sinai twice and he fasted and prayed forty days for the sin of the Israelites who made the golden calf.
o The Israelite spies spent forty days checking out the promised land. When they brought back a negative report, the Israelites wandered in the wilderness forty years, until a generation died off.
o Elijah spent forty days and nights on Mount Horeb (Sinai), where he had an encounter with God.
o Jesus fasted and prayed for forty days and nights in the wilderness, where he was tested by Satan.
o Jesus appeared to the disciples for forty days following his resurrection before his ascension.
Why Ashes on Ash Wednesday?
Ash Wednesday emphasizes two themes: our sinfulness before God and our human mortality. Ashes or “dust” recalls creation (from the dust of the earth), as well as our mortality (Genesis 3:19) and repentance (Jonah 3:6, for example).
In earlier centuries, ashes were used to mark those who had been separated from the church because of serious sins and were seeking to be re-admitted to the fellowship of the church.1
Lent in the Methodist Church
The United Methodist Church began as a renewal and revival movement among members of the Church of England. The early Methodists were members of the Anglican Church who were seeking a deeper relationship with God and experience of faith overall. The disciplines typical of Lent were characteristic of normal, everyday life of the early Methodists — gathering often for worship, communion, fasting and prayer, searching the scriptures, sacrificial giving, confession and repentance.
The first Methodist prayer book intentionally omitted Ash Wednesday and Lent and some other holy days. Later, United Methodists adopted an official ritual for Ash Wednesday that involves the use of ashes in the 1992 Book of Worship. Prior to that time, we either had no official service at all for this day (through 1964) or we had an “ashless” Ash Wednesday.
As United Methodists we might ponder why Wesley would not include this season in his book of worship and instructions to early Methodists. Perhaps it was because he expected that Methodists practiced these disciplines year-round, not just in a special season. Perhaps it was because Wesley understood conviction of sin and repentance as the entry point to faith and a relationship with God, but it was only the beginning. For Wesley, salvation is ultimately the restoration of God’s image in the believer, which is a second work of grace called sanctification.
Reflecting Wesley’s understanding of the way of salvation, this year we celebrated Ash Wednesday at Nameoki with worship and prayer stations. One prayer station with dirt and ashes was to invite us to reflect on our mortality and sin, that we are dead and lost in sin apart from Christ. The second station with the baptismal font was to remind us that in our baptism, we (and our sin nature) are buried with Christ and rise to new life (justifying grace) from Romans 6. The last prayer station invited us to anoint with oil, representing the empowering of God’s Holy Spirit to help us to live in God’s ways (sanctifying grace).
United Methodist’s today do often observe Ash Wednesday and Lent because it can be a helpful time of recommitment and going further in our relationship with God. For many, Ash Wednesday and Lent are a solemn reminder of our sin and God’s merciful forgiveness. For some, wearing a cross on their forehead throughout the day is a courageous witness to their faith. For others, it is a call to humility and repentance. Lent can be an intentional time of year to reflect on one’s life and relationship with God and others, and to make a course correction.
If we observe Lent, we might reflect on the meaning of the season and the significance of the 40 days. (The bulletin for Ash Wednesday included scriptures related to forty days or years, which can be used for reading and devotion during Lent.)
Lent is more than giving up chocolate. It is choosing to surrender to or submit to God, to draw near to God. Sometimes that means taking on a new discipline, like prayer, fasting, reading the Bible. Sometimes it means stopping or removing something from our lives, like television, alcohol, tobacco, complaining, bitterness, offense, negativity, all things that hinder our life with God.
If you would like a copy of the Ash Wednesday bulletin, they will be available in the church office, along with the scriptures and reflections for the prayer stations. God bless you as you seek to know and love God more!
1 Ask The UMC, a ministry of United Methodist Communications.
Accessed at https://www.umc.org/en/content/ask-the-umc-whendid-ash-wed-begin-and-why-do-we-celebrate-it