Yesterday was Ash Wednesday, the day that most of Christianity marked the beginning of the season of Lent. Lent traditionally lasts forty days (not including Sundays, so actually 46 days) and ends at Easter, when we celebrate the resurrection of Jesus Christ. Lent is traditionally a season of repentance and represents the forty days that Jesus was tempted in the desert by Satan (Matthew 4:1-11). Christians who celebrate Lent and honestly try to live a Christian life generally mark the season with some form of sacrifice and/or fasting, contemplation of their sin, and efforts to repent and live a more righteous life.
Churches that have retained elements of traditional liturgical practice—essentially Catholic, Anglican/Episcopal, Lutheran, and churches in the Wesleyan tradition (United Methodist, Wesleyan, Church of the Nazarene, African Methodist Episcopal, etc.)—typically kick-off Lent with an Ash Wednesday church service where the faithful are marked with an ashen cross on their forehead. You probably saw Christians walking around yesterday, especially if you were out in the evening, with a black smudge on their foreheads. This is an outward sign, at least in theory, of an individual’s faith and their personal efforts to rise above the sin in their lives. The ashes are usually made from the burnt palms from the preceding year’s Palm Sunday.
For me, this season is among the most touching in the Christian calendar. Some might look at the negative, criticizing the supposed focus on sinfulness, solemnity, fasting, and so on. I look at the positive. This season is about becoming better people and better followers of Christ, and it culminates in the central celebration of the liturgical year: Easter. We don’t give things up for Lent to look good to those around us (and, if we do, we’re doing it wrong). Churches like the Catholic Church have prescribed specific things—fasting on Ash Wednesday and Good Friday and abstinence from meat on Fridays—while other churches leave it entirely to the individual to ‘give something up’ if they choose, but in all cases the point is to remind you to personally examine who you are and whether you are living as you should and, if you aren’t, fix it. It’s not supposed to just make you feel bad, it’s supposed to motivate you to live better.
Christians everywhere should take this opportunity to self-examine through prayer and sacrifice. Even if you’re in a non-liturgical Christian community that does not formally celebrate Lent, it’s still a good time to individually join with the millions of others in the worldwide Christian community who participate in this important lead-up to Easter. The most important single element of Christianity is that—because of Jesus’s sacrifice—salvation is open to us all. We, however, have to accept it by striving to live the Christian life. Lent, through our own small sacrifices, is an opportunity for us to remind ourselves of this and start moving in the right direction.