Marking the start of Lent with more than just a cross of ashes

In the past, a cross of ashes on the forehead indicated the beginning of Lent. It heralded a look inside, a moment of self-criticism, and conscious action in Christian faith. Not a bad idea.

Today, the 26th of February, is Ash Wednesday. An important day? Many say no, it is a day like any other. Others, reflecting on the church calendar, say yes! For centuries, Ash Wednesday has heralded a change from the happy days of exuberance and cheerfulness to their exact opposite. After all, it would be unhealthy to celebrate all the time! Instead, the contrasting period of Lent calls for introspection, remorse, and repentance. Why all of this? The 40-day period preceding Easter prepares the way for the zenith of the church year: Jesus Christ celebrates His resurrection, and the Christian church celebrates with Him—but not in a loud way. The mood is one of collective gratitude that is joyfully directed toward God.

The idea and the reality

So far, so good. The idea is not a bad one, and fits in well with a conscientious environment. But what does the reality look like? There are still wars, conflicts, and attacks even in our time—even in Christian households. Egoism has not been diminished by the fact that a church calendar reminds us to reflect, particularly not if people are unaware of it in the first place, or if it is deliberately hung up in some obscure corner. It is a time for penance, a time for reflection, a time for self-denial—and people are not fond of hearing that!

And yet, the One after whom Christians are named has led by example: Jesus Christ, true Man and true God, fasted for forty days, and in the difficult conditions of the wilderness to boot! The devil’s words of temptation to Jesus in the wilderness are often the subject of church sermons to this very day—and yet they seem so unrealistic and exaggerated to many listeners. And even as they think these thoughts, they find themselves caught in the pull of an exaggerated sense of self-love. “I can do anything. I know everything.” So many messages in our time begin with the word “I”.

The finish line is still ahead

The greatest is yet to come. The pinnacle has not yet been reached, but the curve continues to rise. Only it is not being drawn by human beings, but by God Himself. Just as Jesus’ death was not the end of everything, but rather a new beginning, so the Christian belief in the death and resurrection is a strengthening new beginning, a comforting hope for the future, a guiding star in a dark time. That is the aim of Lent: “Think about the greater things that are yet to come. Do not take stock of your life just yet. Hang in there. Keep your hope. It will pay off.”

In the past, believers would wear a garment of repentance and draw a cross of ashes on their foreheads. The ashes were intended to remind human beings of the transitory nature of their lives, and symbolise that old things must pass in order for new things to come into being. And today? How about showing a little more understanding to those closest to me? What if we showed greater care for those who are weaker among us? What if we took more time for conversation, prayer, and singing? Contemplation brings serenity—certainly not the worst gift. Repentance creates insight—which only exists within ourselves. Fasting allows us to concentrate on the essential, on that which is truly important.

What is truly important?

So what is truly important? For believing Christians, the answer to this is clear, namely that we want to be with the Lord, that we please Him, that we keep His commandments, that we can be a blessing, that we can be a witness of Jesus Christ in the world, that the gospel may remain a joyful message that we can live in practice. And even for the more reluctant of fellow believers it is clear that peace, a healthy environment, and a fair distribution of earthly resources are more important than personal happiness that comes at the expense of others.

Today, 26 February, is Ash Wednesday—a day of reflection. We alone decide what we will do or refrain from doing. And yet, a little impetus for reflection may not be a bad idea…

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Peter Johanning