Ash Wednesday and the 40 Days of Lent

Today is Ash Wednesday, but what is that?  Ash Wednesday begins the Christian season of Lent (“Lent” comes from the old English lencten which means spring).  The Lenten season is the 40 days (not counting Sundays) leading up to Easter Sunday, celebrating the resurrection of Jesus from the dead. 

The number 40 is significant in the Bible.  Here are just a few examples – it rained for 40 days which is why God had Noah build the ark.  Moses was on Mount Sinai for 40 days receiving The Ten Commandments.  Moses sent some men to scout out the promised land of Canaan for 40 days.  Jonah gave Nineveh 40 days to repent of their sins.  Ezekiel laid on His right side for 40 days to symbolize Judah’s sins.   Elijah went 40 days without food or water at Mount Horeb.  And of course Jesus began His ministry in the wilderness by fasting for 40 days while being tempted by the devil. 

Regarding the significance of 40 in the Bible, the late Eugene Peterson says this, “Forty is a stock biblical word that has hope at its core.  Forty days is a period for testing the reality of one’s life – examining it for truth and authenticity.  The forty days in Noah’s ark was used to cleanse centuries of moral pollution. The forty years in the wilderness was used to train the Israelites to live by faith in the promises of God.  The forty days of Jesus’ temptation was used to explore His calling and test His commitment.  The forty days of Jesus’ appearance after His death, was used to verify His resurrection and characterize the new life of God’s kingdom.”

In more liturgical churches, ashes on the forehead are a sign of repentance, humility, and renouncing pride as we are all reminded to turn away from sin and be faithful to the Gospel.  In the Old Testament, Job says, “I despise myself and repent in dust and ashes” (Job 42:6).  In Genesis chapter 3, after the fall of humanity because of the sin, disobedience, and rebellion of Adam and Eve against God, we are reminded of our mortality as God declares the consequences of our sin when He says, “… for dust you are and to dust you will return” (Genesis 3:19b).

Ash Wednesday begins the intentional 40 day time of fasting, praying, and self denial as we enter into the sufferings of Christ.  In the New Testament, the apostle Paul said, “I want to know Christ, to know the power of His resurrection and participation in His sufferings, becoming like Him in His death, and so, somehow, attaining to the resurrection from the dead” (Philippians 3:10).

In our hedonist culture of pleasure, instant gratification, and sinful, selfish indulgences, it would do us well to enter this season with reverence and soul searching introspection so that we may live a holy life.  May our prayer be that of the Psalmist – “Search me, O God, and know my heart.  Try me, and know my thoughts.  And see if there is any wicked way in me, and lead me in the way everlasting” (Psalm 139:23-24).   

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