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  What is Ash Wednesday?

This week, I am asked rather appropriately, what is Ash Wednesday and Lent? Where did they come from, and aren't they a Catholic holiday? I see more and more Protestants wearing ashes these days - why?

Ash Wednesday marks the first day of the season of Lent. To understand Lent, we have to be familiar with the Church Calendar. The Church calendar is divided into seasons. However, the Church calendar follows the traditional holy days of the year rather than the weather. The first season of the year is Advent and begins four Sundays before Christmas. Next is Christmastide, the Sunday or Sundays following Christmas before January 6th. Epiphany follows and is a celebration of Christ's revelation to the world. Epiphany is on January 6th and the season that follows is variable in length, depending on the dating of Easter. Beginning on the seventh Wednesday prior to Easter is Lent. Ash Wednesday is the official beginning of this season. Lent ends on Maundy Thursday (the night of the Lord's Supper in the upper room) and is followed by a three-day season of Holy Days consisting of Maundy Thursday, Good Friday, and Easter Vigil on Saturday - a day of expectation and celebration of the resurrection of Christ on Easter Eve. Eastertide follows Lent, beginning with Easter Sunday and lasting until Pentecost some 50 days later. The season of Pentecost ends with Christ the King Sunday on the fifth Sunday before Christmas and the Church year begins again.

Lent is a season set aside as a time for personal reflection and penitence. Christians are called to consider the life of Christ and to reflect on the high cost of his earthly pilgrimage. Although the crucifixion is the most obvious of these sacrifices, Christians are also called upon to remember Christ forsook the heavenly paradise to don the humble abode of the human spirit - the body. Thus, Christ sacrificed for a time the glory and honor due to him. So, many Christians during the season of Lent choose to "join" Christ in his sufferings by giving up something they hold dear for a time. I know of some who give up chocolate, soda, coffee, caffeine, and so on. I also know of those who take up something during Lent - like Bible reading and extra prayer. Some choose to fast regularly during this season and others give additional alms to the poor. The motivation for giving up, taking up, fasting, and giving alms is focused upon remorse and penitence for sin.

This is the reason for Ash Wednesday. On Ash Wednesday, the Church commemorates the sorrow, remorse, and penitence for the sins of the congregants. Services of scripture, confession, prayers, and worship are often culminated with individuals receiving the mark of the cross in ash upon their foreheads. This act commemorates the beginning of the season of Lent.

The wearing of ash as a symbol of remorse and penitence dates back well before the Church. After Jonah preached to those in Nineveh, the king wore ash to show remorse (Jonah 3.6). By New Testament times, wearing ash was a well-known and accepted symbol of repentance (Luke 10.13). However, it is unclear when the Church began the rite of wearing ash on Ash Wednesday. One early church custom was for those who had committed grievous sins to present themselves to the bishop on Ash Wednesday. On that day the bishop would sprinkle ash onto hair shirts (not unlike burlap) and, with each penitent wearing one, they would be turned out of the Church for the season of Lent. After this public act of humiliation, and following 40 days of wearing the hair-shirt, a very uncomfortable plight, these penitents would be restored to the Church on Mandy Thursday. By 1091 the Church officially recommended ashes be applied and worn on Ash Wednesday by all who were remorseful for their sins.

For the Protestant Church Ash Wednesday and most of the holy seasons of the Church year pretty well ended during the Reformation. During these years anything linked to the Roman Catholic Church was deemed suspect and generally disregarded by the Protestants. However, as time has passed, the Protestant Church has begun to reconsider some of the rash decisions made in regards to the Roman Church and slowly, with careful scrutiny, many of the holidays (holy-days), rites, and even theologies have been reinstated.

The ash service on Ash Wednesday is one of these that has enjoyed a renaissance in the past few years. Christians of many denominations have come to receive the mark of the cross upon their foreheads - a symbol of their remorse for sin and a sign to the world whose they are and who they claim as Lord and Savior. Rock Home Page

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