What is Ash Wednesday and the Season of Lent?
Ash Wednesday opens our hearts to the pain of lament, the crushing waves of grief, and the struggles of keeping a contrite heart. Just weeks after celebrating the birth of Jesus Christ, Ash Wednesday draws us into the despair of our sin’s darkness where we are confronted with the mistakes and shortcomings of our lives. In the presence of these ashes, we are unable to escape the consequences of our sin. Ash Wednesday forces us to reckon with our contributions to the chaos and evil of the world; it reveals the consequences of our apathy that necessitates God’s presence to redeem the world; and, it shows how we have made ashes out of life’s celebration. We have taken what was right and beautiful and just only to desecrate it with our pride and anger and greed. We have turned celebration into ashes. As the Rae Whitney’s hymn says, “Sunday’s palms are Wednesday’s ashes.” By the work of our hands, Sunday’s celebration becomes ash.
In seeing the ruin of our hands, Ash Wednesday draws our hearts to a pensive and reflective attitude where we can recognize and confess the harm of our sinful lives. We are brought to a new posture that opens our eyes to not only witnessing the ruin of sin, but to also seeing what God is able to do with ashes. The ashes of life, though they are but the remnants of God’s intention, become the fertile ground for the fruit of God’s redemption. It is in the ashes of life that God plants new seeds of love and forgiveness that awaken our fallen hearts to the power of grace and unleashes our passion for discipleship and transformation. While the ashes testify to our destructive capacity, those same ashes receive the creative power of God to overcome our sin and our death. From the ashes of our lives, God grows new palms of peace and justice, of love and forgiveness, of redemption and salvation, of light and life.
God creates new life in the midst of destruction. In doing so, God reveals the purpose of the Lenten season. For Christians, the season of Lent is the six Sundays after Ash Wednesday and before Easter Sunday. The word “Lent” comes from the old English word “Lente,” which referred to the lengthening of the day in springtime. What is particularly compelling about experiencing Lent while remembering Advent and Christmas is that Christmas comes at a time where darkness covers the Northern Hemisphere more than light. In other words, the night lasts longer than the days; however, as Lent goes on and as we celebrate the life, teachings, and resurrection of Jesus Christ, that darkness subsides. By Easter Sunday, the day lasts longer than the night; there is more light in our world than darkness.
This is the experience of Lent: the light overcoming the darkness.
Lent begins with Ash Wednesday, where the colors of sin--grey and black--surround us and we are masked in darkness. Lent ends, however, on Easter Sunday with the brilliance of God’s light as Jesus Christ raises from the dead in a victorious radiance that invites all creation into the redemptive activity of God. While we start Lent in the ashes of sin and death, we end the season of Lent in the light of Jesus Christ, which overcomes our darkness. We may begin this season in mourning as we confess our sins and recognize our destructive works, but we end this season in the rendering of our forgiveness and offering of new life.