Summary: Where did Ash Wednesday come from? And what does Lent have to do with me?
ISAIAH 59:12-20 ASH WEDNESDAY?
What exactly is “Ash Wednesday”? Where does it come from? It’s not in the Bible, obviously. But some of its ideas are. Ash Wednesday has its origins in the early Christian Church – somewhere between the sixth and eight centuries. Originally, the idea was that a Christian, as a sign of repentance, would sprinkle ashes on his or her head.
Where did this idea come from? In the Bible, ashes were always associated with humility and mortality, fasting and remorse. If you had sinned against God, and you felt remorse about that sin, and you were repenting of that sin, then sometimes, in the Bible, you would sprinkle ashes on your head as a sign of sorrow and repentance. Ashes were supposed to remind you that you were mortal, that you will eventually become ashes after you die. We’re only ashes, and we need to repent of our sins now while God gives us a time of grace.
During 6th or 7th centuries, Christian churches thought about this idea. People, in private, at times, would sprinkle ashes on themselves as a sign of repentance. Eventually, this became a public practice. Instead of sprinkling the ashes on your head, the ashes would be rubbed onto the forehead in the shape of a cross. It was a sign of repentance, and a reminder of your baptism, when the sign of the cross was placed on you with water and the Word. The ashes would actually be taken from the palm branches from Palm Sunday, burned the year before.
Some churches today have retained this practice, while others have let the practice go. In our church, we don’t carry out this practice at the present time, but we don’t believe that there’s anything wrong with it. It actually can be quite valuable for people who are doing it for the right reasons. What’s really important, though, is not whether you have ashes on your forehead. What’s important is what’s going on in your heart, what’s going on in your soul.
For every Christian, ashes or not, Ash Wednesday marks the beginning of the somber season of Lent. Lent is a forty day span of time from now until Easter. During this time, we focus on Christ’s battle with sin and Satan that he waged in order to win for us our salvation. The 40 days of Lent do not include Sundays, because each Sunday is considered a “miniature Easter,” a time of joy and celebration of Christ’s resurrection. During Lent, though, even on Sundays, we will be talking about the battles that Christ fought for us on our behalf.
Why 40 days? Right after Jesus was baptized, the Bible tells us that Jesus went out into the desert to fast and to be tempted by the Devil for 40 days. For Jesus, those 40 days were a time of introspection, a time when he battled the temptations of the Devil and emerged stronger than he had been before. For us, Lent is a time when we make that journey with Christ. We think about OUR temptations, our sins, and we repent. Take note of the color purple we are using today, a color always associated with repentance in the Christian church. After these 40 days, we emerge stronger than we had been before.
Lent is a time to evaluate yourself in light of God’s Word. It’s a time to abandon the sins you have grown accustomed to committing in your life. It’s a time to receive God’s forgiveness and strength to lead a Christian life. It’s a time to renew your desire to serve God, and to be the Christians that God has made you to be.
This evening, let’s take a miniature Lenten journey as we look at Isaiah 59. Right away in verse 12, we read, “Our offenses are many in your sight, and our sins testify against us” – that’s true, isn’t it? If you were to count all the sins you have committed in just one week – and remember, sins include not just your deeds, but your thoughts. Sins include not just the things you do, but the things you don’t do, but should. If you were to count all these sins, your offenses would be many. Thousands, millions of sins, testifying against you in God’s court of law.
“Our offenses are ever with us. We acknowledge our iniquities” – there you see a key phrase as we think about Lent this evening. Lent is a time when look you at yourself, and acknowledge that there are some things that need to be fixed up. There are some things about me that are not perfect, things that need to be changed, things that need to be adjusted. My attitudes. My lifestyle.
Listen to Isaiah describe some of those things he sees that are wrong: “Rebellion, and treachery against the Lord. Turning our backs on God. Fomenting oppression and revolt. Uttering lies our hearts have conceived.”