Let’s Begin Lent and Better Understand Ash Wednesday

By: Rev. Dr. Julio R. Vargas Vidal

From a liturgical, Christian, and ecclesiastical point of view, the months between February and March are quite hectic and very busy. Our Church is heir to a tradition given by a church from which it distanced in some manner – the Anglican Church. This church is in turn a direct descendant of Catholicism. Finally, the Roman Catholic Church is the heir to the early church, which drew many of its characteristics from Judaism.

Every year we begin the season of Lent with Ash Wednesday. This can happen in February or March. The name dies cinerum (day of ashes) is found in the Gregorian sacramentaries as early as the 8th century. On this day, according to a very ancient custom, the faithful are exhorted to go to the altar, before the beginning of the service, where the priest, dipping his finger in ashes, will mark their foreheads with the sign of the cross, saying: “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return”, a biblical affirmation.

As a Christian people, let’s go to the Bible. In both the Old and New Testaments, we can see that people who repented of their sins, or entered a period of mourning, would cover themselves with ashes and dress their bodies in sackcloth. The practice was adopted by the church to begin Lent in that penitential way, meaning that they were to repent of their sins throughout Lent.

Lent lasts 40 days, beginning with Ash Wednesday and ending with Maundy Thursday.  Why forty days? In determining the period of Lent, the examples of Moses, Elijah, and Christ were followed. In addition, the fact that Christ spent 40 hours in the tomb had an influence, not to mention the other biblical references to the number 40, namely: 40 days after the flood, 40 years that the Jewish people walked through the desert, among others. While Pentecost was characterized by 50 days in which the Christian people would be joyful and pray standing up, Quadragesima (the Latin term for Lent) would be observed with fasting.

During this season we make an effort to recover the rhythm and style of true believers, knowing we must live as sons and daughters of God. It is a time of reflection, penance, spiritual conversion, and preparation for the paschal mystery. It is a time to repent of our sins and to change something in our lives for the better, a time to seek a closer walk with Christ. There is no doubt that the custom of smearing ashes on believers arose from a devout imitation of the practice observed in the case of public penitents. It is now known that the practice has been observed by clergy and believers since 1091.

Ash Wednesday emphasizes a double encounter: we face our mortality and confess our sins before God within the community of faith. The content and form of this service should focus on the dual themes of sin and death in light of God’s redeeming love in Jesus Christ.

Suggestions for the development of worship:

  1. Early in the morning, before going to work or school.
  2. At noon, perhaps observing a fast that culminates in lunch.
  3. Early in the afternoon.

Ambience, colors, and textures

The visual ambience should be solemn and plain. While purple is the traditional color of Lent, on Ash Wednesday we wear gray, reminding us of ashes. Dark colors with earth tones as well as somber tones are also appropriate. We can use rough and thick textures, such as sackcloth, to suggest the day and the season that is about to begin.

The Theology of Ashes

The use of ashes as a sign of mortality and repentance has a long history in Jewish and then Christian worship. The smearing of ashes can be a powerful, non-verbal, and experiential way to engage in a call for repentance and reconciliation.

Ashes as a symbol of healing

The ashes are made by burning the palms used on Palm Sunday of the previous year. The ashes are mixed with water and anointing oil. Let’s remember that the ashes remind us of our human frailty and our mortality. Our lives are fragile and easily blown away by the wind at any time. We are dust in the wind. The oil symbolizes healing. Our human frailty (symbolized by ashes) is also symbolically healed through oil.

Liturgical alternatives

Not all churches understand or accept the observance of Ash Wednesday. However, they can still observe the day without the need for the smearing of ashes. Here are some ideas that can be incorporated by themselves or in stations throughout the church building:

You can replace the smearing of ashes with Holy Communion. Immediately before Confession and Forgiveness, the congregation can be invited to participate in the Eucharist.

Another option is to have a container with sand or soil. Those who do not want the imposition of ashes are invited to go by the container and dust their hands with the sand or soil. In addition, they are invited to reflect on their human fragility, symbolized by the fragility of the sand or soil.

A station might have a water container and a vase. Those who pass by this station can have water poured onto their hands and be reminded of their baptismal vows.

Finally, a station can be set aside to simply pray for the people who pass through it.

To carry out these ideas it is important that the pastor have a lot of assistance from other pastors, ministers, and deacons, as well as the laity.

An invitation

In Lent we are invited to change our lives. The church invites us to live Lent as a path to Jesus Christ, listening to the Word of God, praying, sharing with others, and doing good works. It invites us to live out Christian attitudes that help us to become more like Jesus Christ, since, as a result of our sin, we distance ourselves further from God.

Lent is a time of forgiveness and fraternal reconciliation. Throughout our lives, we must daily check our hearts, throwing out hatred, resentment, envy, and any jealousy that opposes our love for God and our brothers and sisters. In Lent, we learn to know and appreciate the cross of Jesus – the cross that many believers would not like to see on altars, or around pastors’ necks. With this we also learn to take up our cross with joy to reach the glory of the resurrection.

*Rev. Dr. Julio R. Vargas Vidal is Director of Chaplaincy at the School of Optometry at the Inter-American University of Puerto Rico.  Additionally, he serves as Associate Pastor at Rio Piedras Heights Methodist Church.

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