What is Lent and Why Does It Matter?

(And what's that smudgy thing on your forehead today?)

If you look around today, you might see it and wonder what it is. You might be tempted to motion for people to wipe it off. You might think someone hit a bump in the car while putting on their mascara. You might wonder if someone got too close to a fireplace or a fire pit this afternoon. You might just be bold enough to whisper, “I think you have something on your face,” or to ask, “What is that thing on your forehead?”

If you see it, know that it’s not accidental. Today, Christians around the world celebrate something called “Ash Wednesday.” On Ash Wednesday, people will gather in churches all across the globe to pray, and the service will end with someone smudging ashes in the shape of a cross on the foreheads of those gathered. If that’s new to you, I’ll own it: sometimes we Christians do weird things.

However, Ash Wednesday is a really important day, a day to consider a couple of themes that are significant no matter where you fall on the continuum of faith. Today, followers of Jesus around the world pause to pray and think about these two themes:

1) Our own brokenness and sinfulness, the fact that although we often want to do what is right and be in a right relationship with God and with other people, we can’t do it on our own. We lash out. We make mistakes. We say things we wish we wouldn’t have said and do things we wish we wouldn’t have done. As much as we desire to be perfect, or at least to be really good, we simply can’t achieve it by our own effort. On a day like today, you might ask yourself, “Where am I hurtful, intentionally or unintentionally, to myself, the people around me, and to God?”

2) Our own human mortality. We’re not permanent residents on earth. One of the phrases often said on Ash Wednesday is, “From dust you came, and to dust you shall return.” We don’t have unlimited time in our lives. As morbid as it may sound, the places with the most unreached potential in the world are graveyards, filled with people who missed opportunities because they assumed they could always take advantage of them at some other time. On a day like today, you might ask yourself, “If my time on this earth is limited, where am I wasting that time? How can I better use the time I have to love and serve my neighbors? How can I better use the time I have to love and serve God?”

And so Christians across the globe will gather today to celebrate Ash Wednesday, where they will read scriptures such as Psalm 51, which is printed below, and someone will place ashes in the sign of the cross on their forehead to remind them of their brokenness and their mortality, but also of God’s victory over both of those things through the death and resurrection of Jesus.

Ash Wednesday begins a season in the church called “Lent.” Lent is the 40 days leading to Easter (not counting Sundays.) The 40 days represent the 40 days that Jesus spent fasting and praying in the wilderness before he started his ministry.

Lent has the potential to be one of the most powerful times of the year if we will dig in to its meaning and purpose, but it’s sometimes a confusing season with mixed messages. People talk about giving things up, but it’s not always clear why. At the core, Lent isn’t intended to be a time of self help or kicking off a new diet or exercise plan. It’s not a time where you’re supposed to torture yourself by giving up your favorite things in life just to see if you can do it. During these 40 days, followers of Jesus focus intently on their relationship with God. Lent is a season of the year for deep contemplation and self-reflection, a time to give things up or take things up in order to grow closer to God and to other people.

Sometimes people give things up that get in the way of their relationship with God, like technology or social media, alcohol or certain foods. Sometimes they make an effort to give things up as a way to change harmful patterns of behavior like sarcasm, snarkiness, and anger. Sometimes they give up eating a meal out per week in order to give the money to people struggling with hunger. They make intentional decisions to cut things out of their lives like selfishness, fear, grudges, greed, and envy.

Sometimes, in addition to giving things up, followers of Jesus take things up, they try to form new habits or routines in order to grow in their relationship with God. They decide to spend the 40 days in the car praying instead of listening to the radio. They decide to get up early in order to develop a habit of spending time with God or to write. They decide to write 40 encouraging notes to people who need them, call 40 important people in their lives to say thank you, or do a small act of kindness every day.

Below is Psalm 51, which is a traditional Ash Wednesday reading. Take a minute to give it a read, and as you read it, ask God to show you some things you can work on during the next 40 days as you try to follow Jesus more closely. Try to think of at least one thing you’d be willing to give up, and at least one thing you’d be willing to take up during this season. Write those things down. Consider sharing your list with someone close to you and asking them to hold you accountable to give up and take up those things.

As you think and read and pray, remember this: We might be imperfect, and we might have limitations, and we might not be able to do all the things we want to do or be the people we want to be. But even in the midst of that, we have a good God. A God of mercy. A God of love. A God of grace and forgiveness. A God of second and third and seventeenth chances. A God who wants us to experience joy and fulfillment in life. What can you do over the next 40 days to connect more closely with that God?

1 Have mercy on me, O God,
according to your unfailing love;
according to your great compassion
blot out my transgressions.
2 Wash away all my iniquity
and cleanse me from my sin.
3 For I know my transgressions,
and my sin is always before me.
4 Against you, you only, have I sinned
and done what is evil in your sight;
so you are right in your verdict
and justified when you judge.
5 Surely I was sinful at birth,
sinful from the time my mother conceived me.
6 Yet you desired faithfulness even in the womb;
you taught me wisdom in that secret place.
7 Cleanse me with hyssop, and I will be clean;
wash me, and I will be whiter than snow.
8 Let me hear joy and gladness;
let the bones you have crushed rejoice.
9 Hide your face from my sins
and blot out all my iniquity.
10 Create in me a pure heart, O God,
and renew a steadfast spirit within me.
11 Do not cast me from your presence
or take your Holy Spirit from me.
12 Restore to me the joy of your salvation
and grant me a willing spirit, to sustain me.
13 Then I will teach transgressors your ways,
so that sinners will turn back to you.
14 Deliver me from the guilt of bloodshed, O God,
you who are God my Savior,
and my tongue will sing of your righteousness.
15 Open my lips, Lord,
and my mouth will declare your praise.
16 You do not delight in sacrifice, or I would bring it;
you do not take pleasure in burnt offerings.
17 My sacrifice, O God, is a broken spirit;
a broken and contrite heart
you, God, will not despise.
18 May it please you to prosper Zion,
to build up the walls of Jerusalem.
19 Then you will delight in the sacrifices of the righteous,
in burnt offerings offered whole;
then bulls will be offered on your altar.

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