Lent: A Time for Penance and Reflection
What’ll it be this year? Chocolates or ice cream?
Unfortunately, this choice is not what I’m going to have, but what I’m going
to give up! During this Lenten preparation for Easter, Roman Catholics may likely abstain from foods, while Protestants are more prone to focus on moral reflection and eat a little less chocolate.
But for both, Ash Wednesday--March 8--signals the beginning of the Lenten season.
Rather than a time of celebration, the entire season of Lent is a time for penance. At a typical Ash Wednesday service, a minister places ashes on our foreheads, making the sign of the cross. Often scripture is quoted, such as “For dust you are and to dust you will return” (Genesis 3:19) or “And the dust returns to the ground it came from, and the spirit returns to God who gave it” (Ecclesiastes 12:7).
It is a time to reflect on our mortality and answer the question: How can I reform my lifestyle to advance the community of God on Earth?
Why do we call it Lent? The word comes from an old Saxon word for “spring,” because the days were lengthening.
Why use ashes? Traditionally, the ashes come from last year’s Palm Sunday procession of palm branches, used to proclaim Jesus’ identity as savior and king. In this bittersweet ritual we embrace death--the ashes of our mortality--in order to acknowledge Jesus, our hope of eternal life. Christ claimed victory over death, announcing “I tell you the truth, whoever hears my word and believes him who sent me has eternal life and will not be condemned; he has crossed over from death to life” (John 5:24).
The Reasons Behind the Traditions
Why the sign of the cross? When we touch our foreheads, we entrust our minds to God and his truth. When we place a hand on our breast, we commit our hearts to the Son. And when we touch each shoulder, we ask for the grace of the Holy Spirit to give us strength as we shoulder this commitment.
What does one do during Lent? Some people fast during this time, or refrain from eating certain foods.
In Christian thought, abstention from eating meat is in remembrance of the shedding of Christ’s blood on the cross. Abstinence from meat is required on only two days of the year, Ash Wednesday and Good Friday. However, doing good works and giving alms are especially encouraged as a way of fulfilling God’s intent for peace on earth and a just society.
Last year I had an unforgettable experience at a contemporary Ash Wednesday service. Each person was invited to nail a folded paper--on which each had written personal sins on the inside and a first name on the outside--to one of several wooden crosses at the front of the church. I can still hear that tap, tap, tap sound as the nails were pounded--an audible reminder of the awful pain Christ suffered. I can still recall my shock as the hammer was handed to me.
The ministers then removed the papers and, leaving them folded, called out each name and pronounced forgiveness of sins. I remember the anticipation, waiting for my name in the roll call of the forgiven.
Suddenly my thoughts were interrupted by the acrid smell of smoke, as the papers were reduced to ashes. We were ushered forward for a minister to place these ashes on our foreheads. That experience of hearing, seeing and smelling still remains with me. Rituals are often the hinges on which the doors swing open to the wonderful mysteries of our faith.
May you know God’s blessing this Easter season whether you read, fast, pray, give alms, do good works or participate in a meaningful ritual.
On Faith is a forum for Orange County clergy and others to offer their views on religious topics of general interest. Submissions, which will be published at the discretion of The Times and are subject to editing, should be delivered to Orange County religion page editor Jack Robinson.