“You must submit to supreme suffering in order to discover the completion of joy.” - John Calvin
If you’re not familiar with Lent, it comes from the word “to lengthen”—in other words, during these weeks the days begin to lengthen with the coming light of spring. The period of Lent is 40 days of fasting before the celebration of Easter. Traditionally, Christians have fasted—given up certain foods or other things— during Lent as a sign of repentance, faith, and preparation for Easter. Lent does not include Sundays because in the history of the Christian church, those are “feast" days, in which we celebrated the Resurrection, and not “fast” days. In total, there are 46 days during this season (not including Easter), but we fast for 40 of those.
As the community of Christians worldwide, we now enter into the first day of Lent, Ash Wednesday, particularly the call to repentance.
“Yet even now, says the Lord, return to me with all your heart, with fasting, with weeping, and with mourning; rend your hearts and not your clothing.” Joel 2:12-13
A few years ago, when I looked back over my life, I realized that I couldn’t go forward simply by pressing on faster—instead I needed “to turn around” and slow down. This insight from C. S. Lewis spoke to me,
"We all want progress. But progress means getting nearer to the place where you want to be. And if you have taken a wrong turning, then to go forward does not get you any nearer. If you are on the wrong road, progress means doing an about-turn and walking back to the right road; and in that case the man who turns back soonest is the most progressive man."
Progress is the result of “turning around” around fast, as long as we realize that “turning around” is the root meaning of repentance and that in Lent, we fast (give up certain pleasures or necessities) in order to slow down and get on the right track.
Why it’s called Ash Wednesday? Because ashes are a sign that we are making a U turn, that we are repenting. As a sign of repentance, the Bible speaks of using ashes. Consider these two verses:
Joel 2:12-13 says, “Yet even now, says the Lord, return to me with all your heart, with fasting, with weeping, and with mourning; rend your hearts and not your clothing. Return to the Lord, your God, for he is gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love, and relents from punishing.”
In Matthew 11:20-21, Jesus calls two towns in Galilee to repent in sackcloth and ashes:
“Then he began to reproach the cities in which most of his deeds of power had been done, because they did not repent. ‘Woe to you, Chorazin! Woe to you, Bethsaida! For if the deeds of power done in you had been done in Tyre and Sidon, they would have repented long ago in sackcloth and ashes.’”
So, Ash Wednesday—whether we literally use ashes or not— initiates a time of repenting or seeking to turn our life around in the places we are heading away from God. That way we we turn back to God, at the center of our life.
What do I need to repent from? God, search me and help me to find out.