Another Lent begins...

Yesterday, Ash Wednesday, marks the beginning of the liturgical season of Lent, observed by many branches of the Christian Church. What is Lent? Lent is a 40 day season in preparation for Easter that looks back to Jesus' 40 days of temptation in the Wilderness (Matt. 4; Luke 4; Mk 1); Jesus' 40 days in the wilderness in turn relfects the 40 years of wandering in the wilderness of the children of Israel before they entered the Promised Land (see Numbers, Deuteronomy, etc) and other Old Testament parallels.

As we prepare for Holy Week and Easter Sunday, Lent is for us a season of reflection, self-examination, and repentance, as we identify and turn away from those things that hinder our growth as Christians. It begins with the solemn Ash Wednesday service that climaxes with the imposition of ashes on the foreheads of the congregation, and the congregation's confession of sin using the Scriptural words of Psalm 51. This liturgy is found in The United Methodist Book of Worship p. 321 and it is closely based upon the service found in the 1979 Book of Common Prayer p.264, but without the Litany of Penitence. So this service also illustrates the familial ties between Methodists and the Anglican liturgical tradition.

What does this practice of receiving ashes mean? In the Bible, ashes are a symbol of lamenting and turning away from sins, and also of purification (see, for example, Daniel 9:3-4; Jonah 3:5-6; Matthew 11:21; Numbers 19:16-19). As Christian Churches have been doing since at least the 10th Century, we in the United Methodist Church continue to use this potent Biblical symbol to remind ourselves of our own need of repentence and spiritual renewal and purification. Like the Sacraments themselves and other practices such as burning incense in our Evening Prayer service, putting images in our stained glass windows, foot-washing, lifting our hands during worship, or making the sign of the cross over our hearts, the practice of receiving ashes on Ash Wednesday helps us engage in a way of prayer and a worship experience that is multi-sensory, rather than one based only upon speaking and hearing words.

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