What is Ash Wednesday?
The simple answer is that it marks a time of fasting and prayer for Christians. It is the beginning of the forty days of the Lenten season in preparation for Easter. The challenge with this holiday we are celebrating today is like all other Christian holidays, they evolved over time.
Lent, short for Lenten, is drawn from the Old English / Teutonic word for “Spring” (lencten). It became associated with this period of forty days of fasting since they took place in the Springtime.
When did it start?
It is rather difficult to determine precisely when Ash Wednesday and Lent really began. At first, in some parts of the Roman world, it began as a severe fast for 24 to 40 hours before Easter and before Baptism. Easter became the most regular fixed time (but not the only time) for baptism. Fasting for a day or two before baptism is a very ancient custom that goes back as far as the Apostolic times (the First Century A.D.) when the Temple still stood in Jerusalem. The traditions we have today seem to have formed from a coalescing of various early local traditions before the 4th century. Eventually, these traditions seemed to have further evolved into a full forty days of asceticism drawn from Jesus’ forty days of fasting the wilderness before being tempted by the devil (Matthew 4:1–11).
The first formal mention of Lent is found in the fifth canon of the Council of Nicea in 325 A.D. from which the church gets the first draft of the Nicene Creed. The ancient name for it was not “lent” of course, but in fact quadragesima (Latin) or in Greek, tessarakoste, meaning “fortieth.”
We should not assume this forty-day fast began at Nicea. In fact, the cannon speaks of it so briefly, it clearly seems to assume common knowledge of the practice. It is brought up in reference to another issue, namely a question of when to have biannual synods for bishops to discuss matters regarding readmission of the excommunicated.
“And let these synods be held, the one before Lent, (that the pure Gift may be offered to God after all bitterness has been put away), and let the second be held about autumn.”
The forty days of fasting we now know as Great Lent became a ministry period for penance and ultimately readmitting and recommunicating the excommunicated with the Church. It appears over the first several centuries the fasting associated with baptisms and Easter grew into the forty-day Lenten period.
Where do the ashes come from?
The early Church, drawing on the Old Testament, often observed times of fasting and prayer. During these times of fasting included a practice where characters would put off they’re fine clothing, don sackcloth instead, and they sit down in ashes and sprinkle them over their own head. This was a regular ritual-sign for repentance in the Old Testament.
“O daughter of my people, gird on sackcloth, and roll in ashes; make mourning as for an only son, most bitter lamentation; for suddenly the destroyer will come upon us.” (Jeremiah 6:26)
Sackcloth and ashes were associated either with times of great grief, like the loss of a loved one (above) or especially during times of repentance. As the fasting traditions before Easter continued to develop and grow, the sackcloth and more theatrical aspects diminished until about the 10th century when ashes began to be imposed just upon the forehead of the worshippers. It is these ashes that give it the more modern name “Ash Wednesday”.
An Enduring Tradition
Perhaps the most important and interesting aspect of Lent is that it has retained its fundamental meaning for over 1600+ years—repentance. This displays the power of tradition when used rightly within the Church to support the ministry of the Gospel!
Repentance is the process by which the Christian self-examines, reflects on sin, and turns his or her wanton gaze toward God for grace. Repentance is not only the way we become a Christian—but the way we live as Christians.
Repentance stands at the heart of eucharistic and all Judeao-Christian spirituality. Jesus’ preaching fundamentally was, “Repent—for the Kingdom of heaven is at hand!” (Matthew 4:17) In the Old Testament, when the worshipper brought a sin offering, he was to “confess his sin” to the priest (Leviticus 5:5–6). This tradition of confession of sin and repentance continued on in the Church without a Temple. Paul commands for the Christian worshipper to “examine himself” in partaking of the Lord’s table.
(1 Corinthians 11:28)
The Spirit and the Letter
There is nothing in Scripture itself that commands Ash Wednesday and Lenten observation. As Christians worshipping in the Anglican tradition, we do not have a legalistic view of tradition. All tradition is there to serve the Church. And so according to the preface to the 1662 Common Prayer Book, we are free to express our faith in forms that are not in any way “contrary to the Word of God, or Sound doctrine, or which a Godly man not with a good conscience use and submit unto….”
We have the Liberty in Christ to worship in robust ways, to even thoughtfully develop forms and follow them. In fact, no Church can worship without forms. If you throw them out, you would just have to create new ones. When the Reformation landed on the shores of England, the English Reformers, especially her foremost reformer—Thomas Cranmer, did not reinvent the wheel but looked to the ancient pattern of the early Church to draw on.
So in spite of the Lenten traditions being drawn from a variety of early Christian traditions and evolving over the history of the Church, what has remained the same is the Spirit in all of them, namely the focus on repentance in Christ Jesus. This is nothing less than the call of the Gospel of the Kingdom that Jesus and the Apostles preached. And that is what is most important, the Spirit of the Law. Paul himself reminds the Christians at Rome in regard to observing Holy Days:
“One man esteems one day as better than another, while another man esteems all days alike. Let everyone be fully convinced in his own mind.” (Romans 14:5 RSV)
So what does Ash Wednesday and Lent call us to? If understood right, it is a path of spiritual observance that leads us to see Jesus! There at the end of it is the crucified and resurrected God-man—the one in whom we have everlasting salvation.
In this season…
Do you have sin? — Jesus will take it.
Do you have burdens? — Jesus will lift them.
Do you have guilt? — Jesus cleanses that
Do you have shame? — Jesus erases it.
When we approach him with hearts of sackcloth and ashes, Jesus gives us the beaming white robes of his righteousness. That is the promise of the Gospel to you during Lent, and all year long.
Bishop Todd J. Murphy