Wednesday, February 10, 2016 marked the beginning of the Lenten period, or just Lent, this year. The day, commonly known as Ash Wednesday or Day of Ashes derives its name from the practice of placing ash on the foreheads of adherents as a sign of mourning or repentance to God.
The use of ash as a sign of mortification and repentance has a long history in Jewish and Christian worship, though historically, ashes signified purification and sorrow for sins.
Centuries ago, participants used to sprinkle themselves with ash and repent much more publicly, but the practice fell away sometime between the 8th-10th century before evolving into what it is today.
The ash is obtained from the burning of palm fronds from the previous year’s Sunday before Easter, and applied during services. Palm Sunday marks Jesus’ return to Jerusalem, when people waved palm branches to celebrate his arrival.
Since this day is exactly 40 days — excluding Sundays — before Easter Sunday, it cannot be an Ash Monday or Ash Thursday.
Ash Wednesday is a moveable feast, falling on a different date each year because it is dependent on the date of Easter. It occurs as early as February 4 or as late as March 10.
What is Lent, therefore? It is the Christian season of preparation before Easter. It ends on Holy Thursday, the fifth day of Holy Week ,the week leading up to Easter.
The Lenten period is intended to be a time of self denial, moderation, fasting and forsaking sinful activities and habits, at the same time calling on Christians to seek spiritual direction. Why 40 days and not seven or even 20? In Jewish and Christian tradition the number 40 is symbolic.
It is more than a literal measurement; it represents a long time and a period of preparation or testing. Remember the 40 days and 40 nights of rain during the flood in Genesis 7; the 40 years that the Israelites wandered in the desert after the Exodus and the 40 days that Jesus spent in the wilderness before beginning his public ministry.
Lent lasts 40 days so that we can spend the right amount of time in this period of penance and preparation before Easter.
Why do we give up something for Lent? Having its origin in the early days of the Church, converts seeking to become Christians spent several years in study and preparation.
Owing to the fact that they were under the threat of Roman persecution, becoming a Christian was serious business, hence the intensive preparation. Afterwards, they went through a final period of purification and enlightenment for 40 days before their baptism at Easter.
In the contemporary world, Lent is popularly known as a season of conversion; we acknowledge the ways we have turned away from God in our lives and focus on turning our hearts back to God. It’s no wonder the pillars of Lent are prayer, fasting and alms giving.
Giving up something for Lent is ultimately a form of fasting. We deprive ourselves of some pleasures or indulgence and offer that sacrifice to God.
Another way is to “give up” a bad habit such as smoking or gossiping as a way of turning our lives back to God.
A small positive change can, in the long run, have a big impact beyond the 40 days of Lent.
Take time and think of that which you enjoy and would like to give up as sacrifice for a while like a hot shower, sweetened tea or a bad habit you would like to overcome.
You may decide to turn off your WhatsApp or mobile phone for a few hours each day and not letting it distract you from the loved ones you are with in real time.
Whatever the case, find something that works for you that may help you to turn towards God in this holy season of Lent.
The writer is a high school teacher email@example.com