As I was trying to get everyone up and ready for school this morning, my oldest son asked me, “Have I ever gotten ashes on my forehead on Ash Wednesday? Have we ever celebrated Lent?”
Since he was about 4 or 5 we have attended churches that were less liturgical in nature. But before that time, we worshiped as a family in the Catholic Church. Both my husband and I grew up in Catholic households, and I attended Catholic school my whole life. We were accustomed to the liturgies and customs of a traditional church, but when we left, many of those traditions were no longer practiced where we were attending. Lent is a season that my kids have seldom practiced in its fullness. So this morning I thought I’d take a few minutes to talk to my son about Lent and briefly give him some answers to his questions. Perhaps your kids have questions too.
You don’t have to be Catholic to celebrate Lent. Liturgical churches such as Methodist, Lutheran, and Presbyterian also observe the season of Lent. In many of these denominations, ashes are also used as a symbol of the beginning of this season.
The ashes are used to remind us of two things: Our sinfulness before God and our mortality.
If you recall, in the Old Testament, and even in the time of Jesus, ashes were used as an outward sign of penance and repentance.
So I turned to the Lord God and pleaded with him in prayer and petition, in fasting, and in sackcloth and ashes. Daniel 9:3
When the news reached the king of Nineveh, he got up from his throne, took off his royal robe, put on sackcloth, and sat on ashes. Jonah 3:6
Ashes also represent our physical mortality.
By the sweat of your brow you will eat food until you return to the ground, for out of it you were taken; for you are dust, and to dust you will return. Genesis 3:19
Ash Wednesday marks the beginning of the season of Lent. It is a time when many Christians prepare themselves for Easter by observing a period of fasting, repentance, sacrifice, and self-discipline. For many, this means either giving up something or taking on something . . . both with the intent of bringing ourselves closer to God.
While our family doesn’t necessarily practice the Lenten abstinence of meat every Friday, we fast and abstain on Good Friday. Fasting can simply mean having one main meal during the day and two smaller meals which if combined are not equal to or greater than the main meal. And while abstaining from meat isn’t a salvation issue, it is a personal sacrifice. Just something small to give up as we, along with many others in our family, the Church, do the same and hopefully come to a realization that pleasing our flesh is not as important as growing in our relationship with God.
It may be the sacrificial nature that many in non-traditional churches feel is unnecessary, since it is through Jesus’ perfect sacrifice that we are all forgiven already. I can understand that, but the sacrificial element of Lent is not meant to take anything away from Jesus’ ultimate saving grace on the Cross and His Resurrection. On the contrary! We are striving to grow closer to our Lord by self-examination, sacrifice, and repentance.
I think for many the sacrificial nature of “giving something up” or “taking something on” is profoundly personal mostly because we humans tend to use “things” as crutches, instead of fully leaning on God and seeking Him. Whether that crutch is smoking, food, alcohol, drugs, or technology, we must examine ourselves as to what is it in our lives that might be taking our focus off the Lord. As an example, and yes, it’s one I may have used in speaking to my son, if our iPhone is something that we can’t seem to be without 24/7, it might be a good idea to examine how addiction to technology is preventing us from a more fulfilling walk with Christ. Are we replacing the time we should be spending with God with outside diversions?
Therefore, I urge you, brothers and sisters, in view of God’s mercy, to offer your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and pleasing to God—this is your true and proper worship. Do not conform to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God’s will is—his good, pleasing and perfect will. Romans 12:1-2
My final word to my son was that whether or not a person receives ashes on their forehead, they can take the next 40 days to examine their hearts and make some necessary changes to the way they perceive their daily walk with God. Easter is a big deal. Its representation is the foundation of Christ’s Church. It’s a good thing to prepare ourselves for this most important celebration. It’s a good thing to be introspective for a period of time and reflect on what God is calling each of us to do in our personal journey as Christians.
In examining your own daily routines, is there something you can take on or take away that will help you focus on Christ more fully? If so, I encourage you to pray about this area of your spiritual life. Pray with your family, perhaps using the next 40 days as a time when you all are renewing your own Baptismal promises, and being reborn through Jesus!