Summary: Lent is one of the earliest observances of the church. Jesus’ 40 days in the wilderness is a model for spiritual preparation for future effectiveness and fruitfulness in ministry.
For most of the past 500 years, there was an almost infallible way to tell Catholics from Protestants: the Catholics were the ones who had a cross-shaped smudge of ashes on their foreheads on Ash Wednesday. But, those times are changing. Each year for the past decade, more and more Protestant churches have observed Ash Wednesday, reclaiming a bit of their “little-c” catholic heritage from beyond the turbulent and acrimonious controversies of the Reformation.
One of the more interesting chronicles of this change was penned by Terry Mattingly a few years ago in a column he wrote entitled “Ash Wednesday for Baptists? Why Not?” (http://listserv.episcopalian.org/scripts/wa.exe?A2=ind9902&L=virtuosity&D=1&H=1&O=D&P=1390)
Reporting on the first observance of Ash Wednesday at First Baptist Church of Gretna, Virginia, Mattingly gives us this observation by Pastor Glenn Graves: "To tell you the truth, we didn’t do the sign of the cross on the forehead part at first. That kind of thing tends to freak Baptists out, you know? So we just let them stick their own hands down in the urn the first time and get ashes all over themselves."
Pastor Graves made a further comment that I found interesting. He said, "We could do Palm Sunday, but that would open up Holy Week and there you go! … That’s the thing about traditions like that. They all seem to be connected and once you use one of them it’s hard to know where to stop adding things to the calendar."
I think Pastor Graves has a good point there, and in the spirit of connecting the dots in the meaning and significance of special observances in the Christian calendar of worship, I want to connect Ash Wednesday with Lent, since this is our first Sunday in Lent. Like Ash Wednesday, the observance of Lent used to be one of the ways in America that you could tell the difference between Roman Catholics and Protestants. I always thought this was a very parochial point of view. Since the Reformation, Lutherans and Anglican have never stopped observing Ash Wednesday or Lent. Indeed, the early Calvinists did too. And, of course, the Orthodox have never ceased observing both Ash Wednesday and Lent.
If you, like me, came from a church that does not have Lent in its history, it is probably because the history of your cradle faith runs back to the Anabaptists in the 16th century. They discarded the observance of all Christian holy days whatsoever, on the theory that they were innovations by the Catholic Church. To their credit, the Catholic Church of their day was sadly in need of reformation, and it was not always easy to draw lines between what needed to be reformed and what should be retained. The idea seemed to be that the Church should return to the faith and practice of the earliest Christians. But alongside this conviction was a pervasive ignorance of exactly what was the faith and practice of the earliest Christians.
When we examine the earliest evidence of the faith and practice of the earliest Christians we find them observing Lent. Indeed, Lent is a far, far earlier observance in the Church than Ash Wednesday, which dates, as far as we can tell, from the 11th Century. The Didache, however, dates from the first century; and the Apostolic Constitutions from the third century. In addition, we have the diaries of Egeria, a Spanish nun, from the fourth century. All of these early documents testify to the Christian calendar and holy days of those early centuries of the Church. And in these early documents we find abundant and compelling testimony to the observance of Lent. Lent originated in the apostolic age. In fact, The Apostolic Constitutions attribute the observance of Lent to apostolic commandment. We can’t verify that, but we also can’t disprove it. [hat tip for this summary to Kencollins.com]