All About Lent

When does Lent begin? 

Lent begins on Ash Wednesday

What is Ash Wednesday?

The official name of Ash Wednesday is the ‘Day of Ashes.’ It is the first day of Lent in Western Christianity.

Why do we mark our foreheads with ashes? 

In the Bible, marking someone’s forehead was a symbol of ownership.  By having our foreheads marked with the sign of a cross, this symbolizes that we belongs to Jesus Christ, who died on a Cross.

The ‘ashing’ of repentant Christians was formerly only for public penitents. These people would have to go to the church door on the first day of Lent, wearing penitential clothing and with bare feet. Penances were imposed, and they were then brought into the church before the Bishop, who would put ashes on their foreheads with the words “Repent, so that you may have eternal life”. Out of humility and affection, friends of the penitents would join with them and also have ashes imposed. Numbers increased gradually until eventually all Christians present came forward for ‘ashing’. This became the Imposition of Ashes as we know it today. Only the words have changed: “Remember that you are dust and to dust you shall return.” This is rather like saying “Don’t forget your place or get above your station, for that is not what God wants of you”.

Where do the ashes come from? 

The ashes are made by burning the blessed palms that were distributed the previous year on Palm Sunday. The ashes are then mixed with holy water to make a paste, which is then used to mark the cross on the foreheads of people wishing to be ‘ashed’.

What is Lent? 

Lent is  a time of fasting, it is intended to be a time of self-denial, moderation, fasting, and the forsaking of sinful activities and habits.  Throughout the ages, the church has highlighted the many and varied purposes of Lent. It is a season when we pray for God’s compassion, and we should also show compassion to others. Money saved by fasting has traditionally been given to those in greater need. The church forgave sinners, rulers released prisoners, masters pardoned slaves and enemies became friends again. Lent became a season when Christians would grieve and show remorse for their sins and wickedness. For this reason the Church discouraged celebrations and festivities and this is reflected in the use of a sombre purple as the seasonal colour.

Whilst the Bible never mentions Ash Wednesday or Lent,  Christian Tradition for hundreds of years. Ash Wednesday and the observance of Lent as we know it came into existence somewhere between the fifth and eighth centuries. Before that, Lent began on what is now the first Sunday in Lent, and so there were only thirty-six days of Lent (Sundays, which always celebrate the resurrection, were excluded).  Ash Wednesday is now forty-six days before Easter  meaning that there are forty weekdays in Lent.

In many traditions, Lent is a time for cleaning, in preparation for Easter and spring. First your soul, then your kitchen, then the rest of the house was cleansed and purified of the past year’s accumulations. Old clothes are mended, and new clothes purchased at this time of year. In the Ukraine, houses were whitewashed inside and out during Lent. In this way, everything was made ready to face the season of Salvation and Rebirth. Traditions of ‘spring cleaning’ stem from this religious observance.

Where does the word ‘Lent’ or ‘Lenten’ come from?

The word “lent” means “lengthen” and stands for that time in spring when the days grow longer.

Why are there 40 days of Lent?

The number 40 is significant in Jewish-Christian scripture: in Genesis, it took 40 days and nights of rain to cause a flood which destroyed the earth; the Hebrews spent 40 years in the wilderness before reaching the Promised Land; Moses fasted for 40 days before receiving the Ten Commandments on Mount Sinai; Jesus spent 40 days of fasting in preparation for his ministry.

Why do people give up/take up things during Lent?

By denying ourselves luxuries and pleasures, we can concentrate our attentions on spiritual matters, and from early times, communions, sermons and spiritual exercises have been increased during Lent. In modern times we are equally encouraged to ‘take something on’ as ‘give something up’.

When does Lent finish? 

Lent officially ends on Maundy Thursday in Holy Week. On that day, Christians commemorate The Last Supper, where Jesus ate one last meal with his apostles before being crucified on Good Friday. He thanked God for the bread and wine and called upon His followers to use the bread and wine to remember Him. This has inspired the words and actions of the Eucharist that is celebrated as part of Christian worship.

Want to know more? Contact Rev. Penny to find out how to take part in this year’s Lent Course.