Ash Wednesday and the observance of Lent as we know it came into existence somewhere between the fifth and eighth centuries. Before that, Lent began on what is now the first Sunday in Lent, and so there were only thirty-six days of Lent. Sundays, which always celebrate the resurrection, are now
excluded thus Ash Wednesday is forty-six days before Easter (forty weekdays).
The tradition of fasting during Lent mirrors that of our Lord. In the Book of Common Prayer, Ash Wednesday is described as a ‘Greater Fast’, one of two, with Good Friday being the other. Fasting, in Biblical times, was always associated with acts of repentance, along with ‘sackcloth and ashes’. People or communities who had sinned would wear sackcloth and sprinkle themselves with ashes, as an outward sign of their repentance.
The ‘ashing’ of repentant Christians was formerly only for public penitents. These people would have to go to the church door on the first day of Lent, wearing penitential clothing and with bare feet. Penances were imposed, and they were then brought into the church before the Bishop, who would put ashes on their foreheads with the words “Repent, so that you may have eternal life”. Out of humility and affection, friends of the penitents would join with them and also have ashes imposed. Numbers increased gradually until eventually all Christians present came forward for 'ashing'. This became the Imposition of Ashes as we know it today. Only the words have changed: “Remember that you are dust and to dust you shall return.”
The ashes used on Ash Wednesday are obtained by burning the palms of the previous year (now the palm crosses).
Lent, as a time of fasting, has been kept almost since the time of the Apostles. It is an end in itself for spiritually strengthening the faithful. Throughout the
ages, the church has highlighted the many and varied purposes of Lent. It is a season when we pray for God’s compassion, and we should also show compassion to others. Money saved by fasting has
traditionally been given to those in greater need.
By denying ourselves luxuries and pleasures, we can concentrate our attentions on spiritual matters, and from early times communions, sermons and spiritual exercises have been increased during Lent. In modern times we are equally encouraged to ‘take something on’ as ‘give something up’.
Forty is the number of days our Lord fasted in the wilderness, like the forty-day fasts of Moses and Elijah which are recorded in the Old Testament. Also in Genesis, the flood which destroyed the earth was brought about by forty days and nights of rain and the Hebrews spent forty years in the wilderness before reaching the land promised to them by God.
Purple is the symbolic colour used in some churches throughout Lent, for drapes and altar frontals. Purple is used for two reasons: firstly because it is associated with mourning and so anticipates the pain and suffering of the crucifixion, and secondly because purple is the colour associated with royalty, and celebrates Christ's resurrection and sovereignty.
The imposition of ashes on Ash Wednesday has been historically observed by the Anglican, Roman Catholic and Lutheran Christians. It has also become a standard practice in the Methodist Church.
In addition to these liturgical denominations, some Anabaptist and Reformed churches, which abandoned the practice after the Reformation, now also observe this day, which has become popular in much of Christianity in general.
The Eastern Orthodox Church does not, in general, observe Ash Wednesday; instead, Orthodox Great Lent begins on Clean Monday.
ALMIGHTY and everlasting God, who hatest nothing that thou hast made, and dost forgive the sins of all them that are penitent: Create and make in us new and contrite hearts, that we worthily lamenting our sins, and acknowledging our wretchedness, may obtain of thee, the God of all mercy, perfect remission and forgiveness; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
Therefore also now, saith the Lord, turn ye even to me with all your heart, and with fasting, and with weeping, and with mourning: And rend your heart, and not your garments, and turn unto the Lord your God: for he is gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and of great kindness, and repenteth him of the evil. Who knoweth if he will return and repent, and leave a blessing behind him; even a meat offering and a drink offering unto the Lord your God? Blow the trumpet in Zion, sanctify a fast, call a solemn assembly: Gather the people, sanctify the congregation, assemble the elders, gather the children, and those that suck the breasts: let the bridegroom go forth of his chamber, and the bride out of her closet. Let the priests, the ministers of the Lord, weep between the porch and the altar, and let them say, Spare thy people, O Lord, and give not thine heritage to reproach, that the heathen should rule over them: wherefore should they say among the people, Where is their God? Then will the Lord be jealous for his land, and pity his people.
Now then we are ambassadors for Christ, as though God did beseech you by us: we pray you in Christ's stead, be ye reconciled to God. For he hath made him to be sin for us, who knew no sin; that we might be made the righteousness of God in him. We then, as workers together with him, beseech you also that ye receive not the grace of God in vain. (For he saith, I have heard thee in a time accepted, and in the day of salvation have I succoured thee: behold, now is the accepted time; behold, now is the day of salvation.)
Take heed that ye do not your alms before men, to be seen of them: otherwise ye have no reward of your Father which is in heaven. Therefore when thou doest thine alms, do not sound a trumpet before thee, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and in the streets, that they may have glory of men. Verily I say unto you, They have their reward. But when thou doest alms, let not thy left hand know what thy right hand doeth: That thine alms may be in secret: and thy Father which seeth in secret himself shall reward thee openly. And when thou prayest, thou shalt not be as the hypocrites are: for they love to pray standing in the synagogues and in the corners of the streets, that they may be seen of men. Verily I say unto you, They have their reward. But thou, when thou prayest, enter into thy closet, and when thou hast shut thy door, pray to thy Father which is in secret; and thy Father which seeth in secret shall reward thee openly.
Moreover when ye fast, be not, as the hypocrites, of a sad countenance: for they disfigure their faces, that they may appear unto men to fast. Verily I say unto you, They have their reward. But thou, when thou fastest, anoint thine head, and wash thy face; That thou appear not unto men to fast, but unto thy Father which is in secret: and thy Father, which seeth in secret, shall reward thee openly.
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