History and Theology at the Beginning of Lent
Ash Wednesday is the day which marks the beginning of the church’s journey through Lent. Lent is intended to be a time of spiritual renewal for both the individual Christian and the corporate body of Christ. It is a time for self-examination, for study of the Bible, for meditation on its words, and for prayer. Its origins and development are subsequent to and dependent on the Easter celebration, but Lent is properly viewed as preparation that builds in intensity from Ash Wednesday to the Paschal liturgy.
The time period of forty days in Lent should probably not strike us as unusual since both Moses and Elijah fasted for forty days. Lent, though, is tied to a period of the church calendar that follows Jesus’s life from birth to resurrection, and this forty day fast should call to our minds the fast which Jesus undertook in the wilderness (Luke 4.1-13). In Lent the church walks in the imitation of her Messiah’s life of prayer and self-sacrifice.
Lent developed as part of the preparation for the baptism of catechumens that occurred on Easter morning. However, it was not always forty days in length. At the end of the second century, Irenaeus described a preparatory fast that took place over a period of approximately forty hours (Eusebius, H.E. 5.24.11-13). Evidence of week-long fasts can be found in the third century, but the Council of Nicaea contains an explicit reference to Lent as a time of repentance after which the excommunicated should be allowed to rejoin the church (Canon 5). Roughly a century later, Socrates describes a variety of practices in Lent with lengths varying from three to seven weeks (Socrates, H.E. 5.22). The current length and tradition had taken its form with fairly universal acceptance by at least the seventh century.
Ash Wednesday is a day when many in the Christian world recall their sinfulness and mortality. This time of recollection is to be a time of repentance, that is, one does not recall sin simply for its own sake but with the intention to change. The day draws its name from a ritual in the liturgy known as the Imposition of the Ashes. During this ritual, the presiding figure usually will say something like, “Remember that you are dust and to dust you shall return.” This phrase recalls our mortality and frailty before a holy God. However, it is accompanied by a service in which confession of sin is to play an integral role and begins a season when repentance is at the center of the liturgical life.
Ash Wednesday is often the first day of a time of forty days when Christians relinquish something. For some, this is a symbolic gesture that involves giving up something like chocolate or meat, but the time of Lent can also be used as a time to reform poor spiritual practices and begin to practice better ones.
Finally, at least two broad parallels can be drawn between Ash Wednesday and the Day of Atonement. First, it is an annual day of repentance in order to seek the forgiveness of sins. It is important to note that, unlike the Day of Atonement was for Israel, Ash Wednesday is not required for Christians. However, Ash Wednesday can serve a useful purpose in the life of the congregation as a catalyst to a life of repentance. Second, Ash Wednesday looks back to the sacrifice of Jesus just as the Day of Atonement looked forward to it. Here, of course, we remember that we are not specially forgiven on Ash Wednesday, but we thank God for his atonement on behalf of us as poor, miserable offenders.