Ash Wednesday marks the beginning of Lent, as the church calendar moves towards Easter.
Christians mark the forty day period before Easter a variety of ways, including by giving something up for this time period.
Traditionally, this time period mirrors the time that Jesus spent fasting in the desert, tempted by Satan. In a similar way, the church spends time fasting, praying, and seeking transformation.
As Rev. Dr John Squires writes in a reflection on Ash Wednesday on his blog An Informed Faith, the forty days Jesus spends in the desert is best taken as a symbolic amount of time:
Forty, however, should be regarded not as a strict chronological accounting, but as an expression indicating “an extended period of time”, whether that be in days or in years. It points to the symbolic nature of the account.
We see this usage of forty, for instance, in the comment in Judges, that “the land had rest forty years” (Judges 5:31, 8:28)–a statement that really means “for quite a long time”. Likewise, Israel was “given into the hands of the Philistines forty years” (Judges 13:1) and Eli the priest served for 40 years (1 Sam 4:18).
David the king reigned for 40 years (2 Sam 5:4, 1 Kings 2:11; 1 Chron 29:27), his son Solomon then reigned for another 40 years (1 Kings 11:42; 2 Chron 9:30), as also did Jehoash (2 Kings 12:1) and his son Jeroboam (2 Kings 14:23). If we take these as precise chronological periods, it is all very neat and tidy and orderly–and rather unbelievable.
While the time period itself may be symbolic, Lent is often a time of action for the church.
In the ACT, Tuggeranong Uniting Church are marking Ash Wednesday via a church service for the first time in a few years. The service will be streamed online via Zoom and will feature a reflection on the meaning of Lent by lay preacher James Ellis.
Mr Ellis told Insights that it was an important occasion in the life of the church. Rather than simply being a time to give something up, he suggested that the period of Lent should be marked by some much-needed reflection and transformation.
“I think it’s significant that we acknowledge the start of lent on a Wednesday because it’s in the midst of life that we stop,” Mr Ellis said.
“We step back. We look at where we’ve been and where we are going. Ash Wednesday and the act of imposing ashes on our foreheads (whether actual or digitally) reminds us that in the midst of this.
“We are all still called, named, claimed and loved children of God. I think we should mark it because it’s one of the earliest traditions of the church and despite popular depictions of Lent being about forgoing chocolate and other empty “virtue signalling”, it’s actually a deeply personal journey that looks outward at how we can change ourselves, the church, the world.”
Lent Event is one practical outworking of the reflection that takes place during the lead up to Easter. Since 2009, the fundraiser event has raised over three million dollars for UnitingWorld initiatives that help people escape extreme poverty. People who participate give something up, spend some time reflecting, and donate some of the money that they otherwise may have spent.
Tuggeranong Uniting Church’s Ash Wednesday service takes place at 5:30pm and will stream online via Zoom.
For more information on Lent Event, visit the official website.
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