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What are Ash Wednesday and Lent?

First, I didn’t grow up attending Catholic Church or attend Catechism classes. In fact, I became a Christian in my thirty-fifth year. Anyway I have always observed Lent as a Holy time leading up to Easter when we celebrate that Christ is risen giving us, the sinners, the great gift of forgiveness of our sins. Just as an FYI, Easter is celebrated the first full moon after the vernal or March equinox between February and April.

What I thought I’d share is the History (short version) of Lent and Ash Wednesday marking 40 days until Easter. For s full version just Google “History of Lent” and you will have several reputable resources. My source was Christianity Today with an article named “The Beginning of Lent|Christian History”

Suffice it to say, I always heard from friends while growing up , “What did you give up for Lent?” I always responded “nothing” because I didn’t go to church as a child except on occasion. As an adult and a Christian I just knew Lent started 40 days before Easter Sunday and it was a time of self-examination and sacrifice.

Lent is one of the oldest observations on the Christian calendar as a Holy Day or celebration. It has changed over the centuries depending on the specifics of region, culture, nationality, and local customs. It’s purpose has always been for self-examination and penitence, demonstrated by self-denial,  as we prepare for Easter.

Early 1st Century churches only celebrated for a few days in spring. Why spring? Because the word “Lent” was derived from the Dutch word “lenctin” which meant spring and Easter occurred after the spring equinox. In 325, the Council of Nicea discussed a 40-day Lenten season of fasting that encompassed the whole church.  It was unclear if it primarily was meant for new Christians seeking Baptism. It was also unclear how they counted the 40 days of Lent as various religions counted the days differently. There were still cultural and regional variation of the practice throughout the Eastern and Western religions. In all observances the practice of strict discipline and seriousness were observed

In the 600s, Lent began on Sunday as the 40th day, but Gregory the Great (c.540-604) moved the day to a Wednesday, now called Ash Wednesday, Gregory the Great, known as the father of the medieval papacy, was credited with the Ash Wednesday ceremony that gives the day its name. As Christians came to the church for forgiveness of sins he marked the foreheads like sack cloth and ashes from the Jewish Religion and was a reminder to them of repentance and ashes to ashes and dust to dust (adapted from Genesis 3:19.)

Over the coming centuries practice of Lent varied but still remained a holy day not only to the Catholic Church where it started, but now throughout many evangelical churches.

In 1966 the Roman Catholic church only restricted fast days to Ash Wednesday and Good Friday. Any other fasting was voluntary as an individual. However, Eastern Orthodox churches remain quite strict.

Lent is still devoutly observed in some mainline Protestant denominations like Anglicans and Episcopalians, while other churches barely mention the practice. It is also traditionally followed in the Eastern religions.

Today, evangelicals are embracing the season. Evangelical leaders, like Jerry Falwell and Bill Bright of Campus  Crusade are promoting fasting in preparation for Easter and revival, as well.  There is little doubt that the early church was a model for today’s churches.

I pray that you have meaningful Lenten season beginning this Wednesday, Ash Wednesday.

Susan’s Soul…

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2 thoughts on “What are Ash Wednesday and Lent?”

  1. Here in Catholic Brazil, the period surrounding Lent is Carnival time–an outlet for self-indulgence that ultimately only serves the powers that be. I have always refused to celebrate this orgy of self-destruction. True to my Anglican Protestant roots, I eat a pancake on Shrove Tuesday and listen to Allegri’s Miserere on Ash Wednesday.


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