Recently, I was asked about the meaning of Ash Wednesday and why it is practiced in our tradition of the faith. It wasn’t the first time I’ve ever been asked that question, and I’m sure it won’t be the last. But with Lent starting in just under a week with indeed, the confession of our sin and the imposition of ashes – Ash Wednesday – I thought there might be more of you who were wondering about this practice and about the season of Lent in general. So, let me share just a bit of what I know…

Lent started as a season connected to the ancient traditions of “spring cleaning.” It was a time for spiritual assessment and of asking God for a new and “clean” heart. It was a season of repentance – where those who confessed to be sinners removed themselves from the fellowship of the church for a period of 40 days before Easter. They would dress in sackcloth and put ashes on their heads, in a way reminiscent of the ancient Israelites.

Ashes were a sign of death and as such of sorrow and repentance. It comes from the end of Genesis 3 when God disciplines Adam and Eve for their sin. Death becomes the consequence – you shall return to the dust of the earth from where you were taken. Thus, ashes to ashes and dust to dust. Ashes become an acknowledgement of our mortality and in marking ourselves with dust, we look our sin right in the face. But, the good news is that in so doing, we can also find forgiveness and salvation.

In the wilderness, when the Israelites sinned, God sent snakes to bite them. Those who were bit died. But then God had Moses raise a bronze snake on a tall pole. Anyone who looked upon that snake was healed and lived. To face the snake was to face one’s sin and its consequence. It was to be repentant and thus to find healing and salvation. John 3:14-17 even likens the cross and resurrection of Jesus to this same “lifting up” and looking upon.

So, to get back to our penitents, after 40 days of separation from the community in sackcloth and ashes (40 days is a typical biblical number representing transformation after some form of spiritual wandering), they would be received back into the community on Maundy Thursday.

Soon, it wasn’t just the “penitents” but the whole community who were practicing this rite. Ash Wednesday thus became the ritual starting of a season of penitence with a service of confession and the imposition of ashes. Ashes were placed in the sign of the cross as a reminder of the ultimate hope we have in Jesus as the forgiveness of our sin. No absolution is offered on this day. But then, on Maundy Thursday, the worship begins with the absolution of sin and moves into the celebration of the Lord’s Supper where the Body of Christ is gathered to receive forgiveness in the body and blood of the Christ.

After so many years, Lent also became a season of preparation for baptism for new converts to the faith. They would use the 40 days to study, repent, and learn. On Easter Eve, the community would gather at sunset and light a fire. In the dark, they would remember Christ’s death (continuing on from Good Friday). Lighting a torch from the fire, they would process together into the worship space to light candles and listen to readings from Scripture which tell God’s story of redemption and lead the hearer to Christ’s death and resurrection. In the light, they would proclaim Christ risen and then baptize the newly converted and welcome them to the table of God.