During the season of Lent, we will have the Voices of Lent, persons in character from biblical times, who were transformed by Jesus. Our voices we will encounter this Lent are Peter; the Samaritan woman at the well; the woman who washed Jesus’ feet; Nicodemus; the rich, young ruler, and a servant girl at Caiaphas’ house. Each character will each extinguish a candle on the Lent wreath as we move through the season of Lent and the Christ candle will be extinguished at our Holy Thursday service and re-lit for Easter.
Ash Wednesday is the church’s way of signaling the beginning of the Lenten Season. Lent is a period of 40 days, not counting Sundays, which serves as a preparation for celebrating Easter. Apart from a decision to observe Lent in some special way, an Ash Wednesday service is meaningless.
Historically, Lent began as a period of fasting and preparation for baptism by converts, and then became a time for penance by all Christians. That is why we typically think of “giving up something” for Lent. We do not give things up because they are evil. God declared creation to be “very good” (Genesis 1:31). Rather, it is because creation is so good, that we often allow THINGS to become more important GOD. Lent provides us with an opportunity to honestly evaluate our life’s priorities. Further, as we sacrifice in a small, but meaningful way, we remember Christ’s great suffering on behalf of all humanity.
This spirit of penance must always be balanced by the joyful reality of the Resurrection, which the church celebrates most clearly on Easter Sunday. Every Sunday is to be understood as a little Easter in the life of the church. That is why Sundays are not counted in the 40 days of Lent.
On Ash Wednesday, our two primary purposes are to confront our own mortality, and to confess our sin before God as a unified body. Ashes have long been a symbol in both Jewish and Christian worship of mortality and repentance. The ashes come from the palm branches of the previous year’s Palm Sunday Service. In this service, we will confess our sin, receive the sign of that confession as ashes are administered to our forehead. This is a very powerful way of entering the Lenten Season.