I did not grow up in the Catholic Church. In the military, there were only two choices for church services on military post: Protestant or Catholic. My dad was Baptist so we went to the Protestant services. It wasn't until I went to a Catholic university, University of Notre Dame, that I was exposed to Ash Wednesday, Lent and meatless baked ziti on Fridays.
After I started pursuing Christ and stopped being lukewarm in my faith, our nondenominational church participated in something similar called forty days of prayer and consecration. The idea was similar to Lent in my mind-- give up something that is excruciatingly painful to do without for forty days as a service to God. I did not even understand the "as a service to God" part very well. Some years, I did it. Most years, I half did it. And a few years, I just shrugged it off.
This morning I have been doing some research on the history of Ash Wednesday, which led to more searching on Lent. Once again, I sit humbled by the amount of don't know that I don't know. I recently read through the whole book of Leviticus, highlighting and organizing the feasts and sacrifices in my Bible. Even though Ash Wednesday and Lent are not mentioned in the Bible as commands to observe, I am struck by God's continual command to remember and set aside time.. to rest and reflect, give honor and be obedient to Him as Creator, Sustainer, Redeemer and Judge. I know I don't have enough margins built into my days to do that consistently. So, with this new knowledge, I am much more resolved to offer my own personal sacrifices this Lent season to remember, reflect, serve and honor God as holy.
Here are some of the little nuggets I gathered about Ash Wednesday this morning.
- Ashes are Biblically a sign of mourning, judgement and repentance. Ashes from sacrifices were to be taken outside the Israel camp (Numbers 19:9), the King of Ninevah covered himself with sackcloth and sat in ashes as a sign of repentence (Jonah 3:6), Tamar put ashes on her head (2 Samuel 2:19).
- Some churches burn the palms from the previous year's Palm Sunday to use as ash.
- The use of uses on Ash Wednesday is meant to remind us that our lives are short. Genesis 3:19 ("...for dust you are and to dust you shall return.") is commonly recited.
SHORT TIMELINE OF HISTORY OF ASH WEDNESDAY AND LENT
- Early church father Irenaus of Lyons (c. 130-200) writes of a similar season but only lasts 2-3 days. Early church converts underwent a fast of 40 hours before baptism. It is thought that this practice eventually led to what is now called Lent.
- In 325 AD, the Council of Nicea discussed and instituted a formal church 40 day season of fasting with only one meal taken a day, near the evening. Meat, fish and animal products were forbidden from being eaten during the period.
- Up until 600s, Lent began on fortieth Sunday (called Quodragesima)
- Gregory the Great (c 540-604) moved the beginning date of Lent to a Wednesday, now called Ash Wednesday, so that it was forty days exactly to Easter, not including Sundays which were feast days. He also marked foreheads with ash as a reminder of repentance and mortality.
- By 800, Lenten practices had become less restrictive with meal times moved to 3pm and then to noon by the 1400s. Over time, less foods were prohibited. In 1966, the Roman Catholic Church restricted fast days to Ash Wednesday and Good Friday. (Eastern Orthodox Churches are more strict.)
- After the Protestant Reformation in the 16th century, the observance of Ash Wednesday was not popular amongst many non-Catholic denominations. It's popularity returned in the 19th century during the ecumenical movement, when many Protestant Churches began intentionally communicating with each other as well as the Catholic Church.
One final bit of conviction on my heart, Jesus said, "And when you fast, do not look gloomy like the hypocrites, for they disfigure their faces that their fasting may be seen by others. Truly, I say to you, they have received their reward. But when you fast, anoint your head and was your face, that your fasting may be seen not by others but by your Father who is in secret. And your Father who sees in secret will reward you." (Matthew 6:16-18)
May my Lenten sacrifice be joyfully presented for only an audience of One.