What is Lent and Why is Today Called “Ash Wednesday?”

Today, you may see friends, co-workers or strangers in the grocery store walking around with a black cross on their foreheads, applied in ash. That’s because today is Ash Wednesday, the beginning of Lent in the historic Church calendar. So, what is Lent, and how/what should we think about it? 

What is Lent?

Lent is the 40-day period (not counting Sundays) leading up to Easter, and is designed to be a time of deep reflection, both about our sin and about what Jesus did for us. It’s meant to be a time of deep repentance and sorrow over the sins we have committed and the sin within our hearts. Lent is, to use musical terminology, a season played “in the minor key.” 

Ash Wednesday sets the tone–when people have the ashes applied to their foreheads, they are told, “You are from dust, and to dust you will return.” It’s a reminder of sin, death and the brokenness of this fallen world–the very things Jesus came to deal with once and for all. 

Throughout the Lenten season, churches that use paraments–colored fabric that decorate a sanctuary–have a dark purple accenting their sanctuaries. The word “Hallelujah” (which literally means “y’all praise God!”) isn’t used in any of the songs or the liturgy. All this builds up to Holy Week, which is marked by Maundy Thursday, the commemoration of Jesus’ “new commandment” to his disciples on the night of his betrayal, and Good Friday. Again, both these services are somber (even more than Ash Wednesday) and sorrowful. These, of course, give way to the beauty and celebration of Easter Sunday. 

That’s what many churches do, especially Catholic, Anglican/Episcopal, and Methodist churches, along with a growing number of evangelical congregations. Many individual Christians also mark the Lenten season by fasting from something during this season (except for Sundays). People “give up” any number of things–anything from meat to dessert to social media. The idea is to set aside something that is meaningful to you, something you truly enjoy, for this time. At its best, the intent of doing this is to help commemorate what Jesus gave up for us and to embody sorrow over our sin. 

How and What Should We Think About It?

Historically, protestants/evangelicals (aside from Anglican/Episcopal and Methodist churches) haven’t had much to do with Lent. Over the last few decades, that has changed dramatically. 

Unfortunately, Lent for some takes on the meaning (or at least the connotation) of trying to earn something from God–his favor or his forgiveness. Whether that has happened through explicit teaching on the part of a church or just the sinful bent of our hearts, the message for some has become: “If I am miserable enough or sorry enough or give up enough stuff, surely that will get God to forgive me of _______ or maybe he’ll love me more.” That’s a scary message, and strikes at the very heart of the gospel, because it essentially proclaims, “Jesus is not enough.” 

Likewise, some churches treat Lent as though it is a biblical requirement–which it is most definitely not. So, instead of being a potentially helpful practice, it is turned into a legalism, a rule added to God’s word.

As this season begins, I’d like to offer a few practical ways you can think about the Lenten season–and participate in it on your own, if you’d like: 

1.) Lent is, in no way, a requirement of anyone. It is a season the church developed over time that many have found helpful (much like Advent, though Advent has significantly less potential for incorrect teaching associated with it). Romans 14:5-6 makes it clear that we are not to argue over “days.” Those who want to commemorate certain days to the Lord may do so; those who would rather see every day as equally commemorated to the Lord may do so.  Either way, we are not to judge one another in these matters. So, if you want to participate in Lent by giving up something (some, instead, take on a special discipline like increasing generosity, increasing Scripture memory, etc.), do so.  If you choose not to participate, why not pray for your friends who are? That the Lord would use their giving up/taking on to grow them in grace?

2.) If you choose to give something up for Lent, don’t run around bragging about it or complaining about how tough it is (which is often just a subtle way of bragging)–in person or on social media. That’s Jesus’ point in Matthew 6:16, when he was speaking to the crowds about fasting. Sure, you might mention what you’re doing to friends or family–especially if you need to tell them why you aren’t doing this or that (“I’ll pass on the cake you made for Sunday dinner. I’m not eating dessert during Lent.”). Likewise, you may want to share that you are fasting with some close friends so they can pray for you during this time. But don’t toot your own horn about it. 

3.) Remember that giving up something or taking up some special practice for Lent does not make God love you more, nor does it grant you more forgiveness or favor with God. Please, please hear that.  Our salvation is in what Jesus–and Jesus alone–did for us. 

4.) If you choose to participate, pray that the Lord uses it to change you! To hate sin more, to love Jesus more, to be more grateful for the resurrection.


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