Today, Ash Wednesday, is all about Lent, including questions like: What is Lent? Why do some people give things up for Lent? Why ashes? Why do we call it “forty days” when it’s actually 46 days? Why do the dates for Lent and Easter always move around? Those answers and more, coming up:
Friends in Christ, today with the whole church we enter the time of remembering Jesus’ passover from death to life, and our life in Christ is renewed.
We begin this holy season by acknowledging our need for repentance and for God’s mercy. We are created to experience joy in communion with God, to love one another, and to live in harmony with creation. But our sinful rebellion separates us from God, our neighbors, and creation, so that we do not enjoy the life our creator intended.
As disciples of Jesus, we are called to a discipline that contends against evil and resists whatever leads us away from love of God and neighbor. I invite you, therefore, to the discipline of Lent—self-examination and repentance, prayer and fasting, sacrificial giving and works of love—strengthened by the gifts of word and sacrament. Let us continue our journey through these forty days to the great Three Days of Jesus’ death and resurrection.
These are the words that mark the beginning of Lent, the season of the church calendar that stretches from Ash Wednesday until Easter. The word “Lent” comes from an old German word, “Lenz,” which means Spring. During these forty days, it is traditional for Christians to make an effort to more faithfully live as disciples of Jesus Christ. In many denominations, this has taken the form of doing right by God (praying and repentance), doing right by one’s neighbors (special giving and acts of service), and doing right by one’s self (self-reflection and giving up whatever distracts from discipleship).
But why give things up? The tradition of giving something up, or fasting, comes from Biblical stories of God’s people who took deliberate time for prayer or reflection, even as they refrained from eating or drinking during that time. Fasting is not, however, a diet plan or a suggestion that some foods are sinful. Over time, people have come to understand the practice of fasting as an opportunity to notice what they’re consuming that distracts them from God. I’ve heard of people giving up everything from sugar to swearing to social media to single-use plastics for Lent. Only you can decide if there is something in your life that is keeping you from a closer relationship with God.
Now, you may have heard that if you give something up for Lent, Sundays “don’t count” as Lent. This is sort of accurate– and it gets to the question about 40 vs 46 days. In the medieval church, when the liturgical calendar really started to get established more firmly, the rules for Lent were very strict: no eating from dawn to dusk, no eating meat at all, no sex, no drinking alcohol. Recognizing that these were extreme demands, the church offered a respite on each Sunday, on the grounds that Christian worship always celebrates the Resurrection, even during Lent. This is why the upcoming Sundays are officially in Lent, not of Lent. Also, major festivals like saint days override Lent–which is part of why St. Patrick’s Day, which is always during Lent, is such a big celebration– because the rules about fasting don’t apply on major festivals!
But speaking of holidays sometimes or always happening during Lent, this season moves around. It’s not like Christmas, which is always on December 25. Easter, however, moves. This is because Easter is intended to happen according to the same schedule as Passover– and the Jewish calendar is a lunar calendar, meaning it’s based on the cycles of the moon. Passover happens on the first Friday after the first full moon after the Spring Equinox, with Easter then falling on the first Sunday after the first full moon after the Spring Equinox. That means that Easter can happen any time from March 22 to April 25, and Ash Wednesday ends up on the calendar 46 days earlier.
And, finally, why “Ash” Wednesday at all? In the Hebrew Scriptures, it was common for those who were mourning or repenting to mark themselves with ashes, as a sign of their sorrow. Ash Wednesday begins with Christians being marked with ashes, as a sign of repentance and mortality, in the shape of a cross, as a sign of forgiveness and resurrection. In the practice of receiving ashes, repentance and forgiveness, death and resurrection are held together. We know that we are sinners who will die, and that we are saints who will live forever with God.