Growing up I knew almost nothing about Ash Wednesday or Lent. My church didn't celebrate either one so I had no real basis for understanding them. When I was a kid all I knew was that it was a time that my Catholic friends would have a black smudge on their forehead and they would give up eating candy for a month. Conversations would usually go like this:
"What are you giving up for Lent?"
"Uh, what's Lent? Is that the stuff you find in your belly button?"
"No. It's a time when you give up stuff. I'm giving up eating candy."
"Why would you...I mean that's a good idea. Can I have your candy?"
It wasn't until just recently that I took the time to understand Ash Wednesday and Lent. As I was going through seminary I became more involved in the overall planning of the worship services throughout the year. When it came to planning an Ash Wednesday service it seemed like it might be a good idea to know what Ash Wednesday is all about. One of the worship planning resource books had this introduction to Ash Wednesday:
"Ash Wednesday is the first day of Lent. By the fourth century the Western church determined that the Lenten period of fasting and renewal should correspond to Christ's forty-day fast (Matthew 4:2), and, by counting forty days back from Easter (excluding Sundays, which remain 'feast' days), arrived at the Wednesday seven weeks before Easter. At one time Lent was primarily viewed as a period during which converts prepared for baptism on Easter Sunday, but later the season became a general time of penitence and renewal for all Christians. Thus Ash Wednesday became the day that marked the beginning of the Lenten renewal.
"The aim of Ash Wednesday worship is threefold: to meditate on our mortality, sinfulness, and need of a savior; to renew our commitment to daily repentance in the Lenten season and in all of life; and to remember with confidence and gratitude that Christ has conquered death and sin. Ash Wednesday worship, then, is filled with gospel truth. It is a witness to the power and beauty of our union with Christ and to the daily dying and rising with Christ that this entails."*
Both Ash Wednesday and Lent focus on our need to repent–or turn away from–our sinful nature. And while it is something that we are supposed to do every day, the period of Lent gives us a much sharper and intentional focus on repenting. It is not just something to do during the Lenten season. Rather the Lenten season should give us a jump start on behaviors that should continue throughout the year. While I am still not and will probably never be an "asher," I have come to have a much greater appreciation for Ash Wednesday and Lent.
*The Worship Sourcebook, (Grand Rapids, MI: CRC Publications, 2004), 551.