Ash Wednesday gets its name from the placing of repentance ashes on the foreheads of participants while repeating such words as “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.” The ashes are often prepared by burning palm leaves from the previous year’s Palm Sunday celebrations.
Shrove Tuesday, also known as Pancake Tuesday or Pancake Day, is the day immediately before Ash Wednesday. In some places it is called Mardi Gras or carnival day, and also the last day of “fat eating” or “gorging” before the fasting period of Lent.
You won’t find the word, “Lent” in the Bible. Around 230 AD, a group of Christians started fasting for the 40 hours leading up to Easter to prepare their hearts. Soon, the idea caught on. Years later, they bumped it up to 7 days of fasting and they called it Holy Week. And by 325 AD, the church officially made it 40 days. Why 40 days? Right after Jesus was baptized, the Bible tells us that Jesus went out into the desert to fast and to be tempted by the Devil for 40 days. For Jesus, those 40 days were a time of introspection, a time when he battled the temptations of the Devil and emerged stronger than he had been before. For us, Lent is a time when we can make that journey with Christ. We can think about our temptations, our sins, and we can repent from them.
Sin, confession/repentance, mortality, death…Many times these are not our favorite topics. However, it is reality for us mortals. We all sin. “For all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God…” (Rom. 3:23).
We all must confess and repent. “Return to me, says the Lord, with all your heart, with fasting, with weeping, and with mourning, and rend your hearts and not your garments. Return to the Lord your God, for He is gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love.” (Joel 2:12-13)
We all face mortality. Then the Lord said, “My Spirit will not contend with humans forever, for they are mortal; their days will be a hundred and twenty years.” Genesis 6:3
We teach our children to repeat a popular rhyme about a very difficult death. “Ring around the roses, pocket full of poses, ashes, ashes, we all fall down.” You sang it to a tune, didn’t you?
This little rhyme came out of a little event in Europe called the Black Plague. Ring around the roses. One of the early signs of the plague was your face would turn pale and you would get dark rosy cheeks. Pocket full of poses. People would carry the poses around in their pockets to ward off the Black Death. They believed that the disease was brought to you through the air so if you breathed in the fragrance of flowers you would ward off the disease. Ashes, ashes? Black poop to be exact. During the last days of the plague the patient would begin to expel dry black ash. We all fall down. Well, we all know that eventually we will all fall down. We all die. I’ll bet you think again the next time you hear that rhyme.
I read a story about how birds around Niagara Falls fly up to the falling water to get a drink. In the winter, each time they go in for a sip, a little ice builds up on their feathers. People have watched as some of these birds go in for dip after dip and suddenly disappear into the falling water when the Ice on their bodies becomes too heavy.
The sins in our lives weight us down, Lent is a time when we allow our focus to see the little stuff that is weighing us down and do something about it.
Lent is that time when we can do some “spring cleaning” in our souls. We look deep within ourselves, and acknowledge our sins. And then we look to Christ, who won the battle for us, and we receive his forgiveness. The forgiveness of sins, won for us on the cross. Lent is a time when we grow in our appreciation of all that Christ has done for us. Not only do we become more aware of our sins. We become more aware of just how much the Lord Jesus loves us, that he would do all these things for us.
Lent is not a time to be depressed and wallow in our failures, it is the time to free our soul from the burdens. By admitting that we are sinners and we want to change, really change we become free.
As we go about these next 40 days please be humble in your promises to God. Whether you give something up or not is between you and God. But in all our actions of Christian service, we should face them with the utmost humility. “Be careful not to practice your righteousness in front of others to be seen by them. If you do, you will have no reward from your Father in heaven. 2 “So when you give to the needy, do not announce it with trumpets, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and on the streets, to be honored by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward in full. 3 But when you give to the needy, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, 4 so that your giving may be in secret. Then your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you. Matthew 6:1-4
How many times have we thought we were doing the right thing and loved to tell people about it? In these verses today, Jesus is telling us to be humble.
Winston Churchill was once asked, “Doesn’t it thrill you to know that every time you make a speech, the hall is packed to overflowing?” “It’s quite flattering,” replied Sir Winston. “But whenever I feel that way, I always remember that if instead of making a political speech I was being hanged, the crowd would be twice as big.”
Are we that humble? It is a common thing during the season of Lent to give something up for those 40 days. As you start your journey you must ask yourself why you have chosen what you have. For many it would be easy to give up something they did not like. For me I could say, for Lent I am giving up sauerkraut or I am giving up watching sports! If you do chose to participate in this tradition, how are you handling that choice.
The aim of those forty days is to be closer to God. I have some suggestions to accomplish that.
Give up thirty minutes a day to spend time with God in prayer and reading the Bible. Pick a Book of the Bible like John and read it slowly and prayerfully over this time.
Or, here’s the big one, pick a sin. Any sin you may be struggling with. Selfishness, hate of a person or race, anger, addictions both physical or psychological, judgment, pride, fear, worry, lust, envy, take your pick. We all have them. Prayerfully pick one that really needs to get laid down. Each day pray to God for help to remove it from your life. Remember, you have that sin because somehow it makes you enjoy it. Watch sin. It’s sly.
Lord, we come before you asking for your redirection and conviction as we prepare for The Easter Celebration.
1 Have mercy on me, O God, according to your unfailing love; according to your great compassion blot out my transgressions. 2 Wash away all my iniquity and cleanse me from my sin. Psalm 51:1,2