Today is Ash Wednesday, the beginning of the Lenten season. While most evangelical churches don’t observe Lent, this year I decided to go along for the journey and see what it’s all about.
Park Community Church’s office was briefly located in the John Hancock Center, right across the street from Fourth Presbyterian Church. I attended my first Ash Wednesday service there about four years ago during my lunch hour with some coworkers. That was the first time I’d ever been to one and joined the ranks of people all over Chicago with ash crosses on their foreheads.
Ash Wednesday 101
I had to go to Wikipedia to learn more about Ash Wednesday before I went.
Ash Wednesday, in the calendar of Western Christianity, is the first day of Lent and occurs 46 days before Easter. It is amoveable fast, falling on a different date each year because it is dependent on the date of Easter. It can occur as early as February 4 or as late as March 10.
According to the canonical gospels of Matthew, Mark and Luke, Jesus spent 40 days fasting in the desert before the beginning of his public ministry, during which he endured temptation by Satan. Ash Wednesday marks the beginning of this 40-day liturgical period of prayer and fasting.
Ash Wednesday derives its name from the practice of placing ashes on the foreheads of adherents as a sign of mourning and repentance to God. The ashes used are typically gathered after the palms from the previous year’s Palm Sunday are burned.
Ash Wednesday is a day of repentance and it marks the beginning of Lent. Ashes were used in ancient times, according to the Bible, to express mourning. Dusting oneself with ashes was the penitent’s way of expressing sorrow for sins and faults. An ancient example of one expressing one’s penitence is found in Job42:3–6. Job says to God: “I have heard of thee by the hearing of the ear: but now mine eye seeth thee. The other eye wandereth of its own accord. Wherefore I abhor myself, and repent in dust and ashes.” (vv. 5–6, KJV) The prophet Jeremiah, for example, calls for repentance this way: “O daughter of my people, gird on sackcloth, roll in the ashes” (Jer 6:26). The prophet Daniel recounted pleading to God this way: “I turned to the Lord God, pleading in earnest prayer, with fasting, sackcloth and ashes” (Daniel 9:3). Just prior to the New Testament period, the rebels fighting for Jewish independence, the Maccabees, prepared for battle using ashes: “That day they fasted and wore sackcloth; they sprinkled ashes on their heads and tore their clothes” (1 Maccabees 3:47; see also 4:39).
My First Ash Wednesday at a Catholic Church
This year, I decided to attend an Ash Wednesday service at a Catholic church right around the corner from my house. Yes, Catholic. My dad’s family is Catholic, so I’ve been to a few Catholic services before… usually weddings, funerals, and a few first communion services for my cousins. While I am pretty naive about Catholic practices [I never know when to stand, sit, kneel, or what to say back to the priest], I do think there is beauty in their tradition. Prayers and liturgy that have been repeated throughout the centuries carry some strange and wonderful peace with them. I love it.
Another aspect of the church that struck me was the architecture of the space. While most progressive evangelical churches look like theaters or warehouses, I love how the architecture of design of Catholic worship spaces fills you with a sense of reverence and awe. There are no flashy screens, sound systems, or video screens, just ornate space with beautiful stained glass windows that tell the Gospel story.
The service was packed, standing room only. The faithful young and old were gathered together as we recited prayers and psalms for the day…
From ashes to the living font
your Church must journey, Lord.
Baptised in grace, in grace renewed,
by your most holy word.
Through fasting, prayer, and charity,
your voice speaks deep within,
Returning us to ways of truth
and turning us from sin.
For thirsting hearts let waters flow,
our fainting souls revive;
And at the well your waters give –
our everlasting life.
From ashes to the living font
your Church must journey still,
Through cross and tomb to Easter joy,
in Spirit-fire fulfilled.
The priest spoke on the meaning of the Lenten season: to repent of our sins, pray and fast, to seek to do good for others, and to seek spiritual renewal during the season leading up to the celebration of Easter.
More hymns and prayers were recited throughout the service, all of which reminded us of our sin and the grace of God that covers us. The priest taught from Isaiah 58 and Matthew 6, talking about the type of fasting God desires for us to have and the attitude we should have in doing good for others. He reminded us that true repentance means to lose ourselves in God.
So if Lent really is a time of repentance, than it really is a season of losing ourselves in God. To forsake ourselves and our desires for what God wants for us and to practice doing good for others. Now, that’s something we should do everyday, not just for the next 40 days, but this is definitely a great reminder and gives us something to focus on as Easter approaches.
The service ended with a choir of children from the parish school singing a hymn as the priests imposed the ashes in the shape of the cross on our foreheads. The ashes are a reminder of our sin and mark the beginning of this Lenten season.
I imagine that we all looked crazy pouring out of the church after the service was over with the ashes on our foreheads, but I walked out with a greater sense of understanding about what all of this means.
Sacredness Can Get Lost in Routine
Like most traditions, the sacredness can get lost in the routine.
Right after the service I went to a vegan restaurant [since you're not supposed to eat meat today]. One of the servers stared at my forehead and blurted out, “Do you mind if I ask you what you’re giving up for Lent?”
Lent isn’t just about giving up chocolate, coffee, social media or whatever your vice may be. It’s about making space in your day to seek God intentionally and to pursue His heart. It’s about fasting from distractions and focusing on the good of others. It’s a time to be reminded of our sin and the grace of God for us that will be remembered at Easter.
Too often, we get stuck in the practice of things that we neglect the true meaning. Lent isn’t about giving up something for 40 days. It means so much more, and that’s what I learned today.
For the record, I’m giving up excessive time online to spend time more intentionally focused on reading the Bible and meditating. I may even go to a few more Lenten services at the Catholic church around the corner. I’ll also be following the prayers from the book Eastertide: Prayers for Lent Through the Divine Hours.
Beauty from Ashes
Just as the ashes on our forehead remind of us of our sin, it’s also fitting to remember that God exchanges beauty for our ashes [Isaiah 61]. Just as this season is in remembrance of our sins, the hope we have is found in the beautiful exchange that Christ made for us, taking our sins and giving His life for ours.
Ashes on the Go
A church I love in Chicago, Urban Village Church, took Ash Wednesday to the streets today and imposed ashes for commuters downtown and in neighborhoods where their campus has a presence. Check it out on NBC Chicago.
Lent is a Good Thing
I get why some evangelical churches don’t observe Lent, but I do think that there is something wonderful about this season and am excited to begin the journey. No matter where you are, there is a church holding an Ash Wednesday service. You should check one out.