Today, Ash Wednesday, marks the beginning of the Lenten season for Christians around the world, especially for those who hold to more traditional and liturgical forms of worship.
Lent is 40 days long, corresponding to the 40 days Jesus spent in the wilderness, but extends over a period of 46 days because Sundays are not counted as part of the traditional Lenten season.
Since the date for Easter is set based on the lunar calendar — the first Sunday after the first full moon on or after the vernal equinox — the season of Lent begins on different calendar dates each year. This year, Lent begins on Wednesday, March 2, and continues through Saturday, April 16. Easter Sunday is April 17 this year. The first full moon after the vernal equinox is on Saturday, April 16, making Sunday, April 17, the date of Easter in most Western Churches.
In most years, the date for Easter or Pascha falls later in the Eastern Churches. Easter dates were the same for Eastern and Western Churches in 2017, but this year the date is April 24 in the East (Eastern Churches use the same formula to determine the date for Easter but use the Julian Calendar, while Western Churches and most of the world use the Gregorian Calendar).
Some churches do not observe the season of Lent at all. It is not specifically commanded or forbidden in the Bible, so churches that do not observe the special season cannot be faulted and anyone who insists it must be strictly observed goes beyond the teaching of the Bible. Nevertheless, the observance of Lent is a good thing if it is observed with the purpose and intent of considering Christ’s sufferings and death for the sins of the world (often called His passion) and as a special time of self-examination and repentance.
While many would simply go through the outward forms of repentance — including ashes on the forehead and fasting during the season — the Bible calls for true contrition and sorrow over our own sinfulness and faith in the shed blood of Christ Jesus as the atoning sacrifice for our sins.
Psalm 34:18 says: “The LORD is nigh unto them that are of a broken heart; and saveth such as be of a contrite spirit.”
Psalm 51:16-17 says: “For thou desirest not sacrifice; else would I give it: thou delightest not in burnt offering. The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit: a broken and a contrite heart, O God, thou wilt not despise.”
The prophet Joel writes: “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” (Joel 2:12-13).
John, in his first epistle (1 John 1:8-9; 2:1-2), writes: “If we say that we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us. If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins, and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness. … And if any man sin, we have an advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous: and he is the propitiation for our sins: and not for ours only, but also for the sins of the whole world.”
God desires that we live in continual repentance — acknowledging our sinfulness and the judgment we justly deserve but then looking in faith to Christ Jesus and His death on the cross for our sins and trusting that in Jesus we are forgiven and accepted of God. Therefore, as we contemplate the Gospel accounts of Jesus’ bitter sufferings and death for the sins of all, it is certainly also a fitting time to examine ourselves and see that it was for our sin that He suffered and died such an agonizing death.
As Isaiah 53:5-6 says, “But he was wounded for our transgressions, he was bruised for our iniquities: the chastisement of our peace was upon him; and with his stripes we are healed. All we like sheep have gone astray; we have turned every one to his own way; and the LORD hath laid on him the iniquity of us all.”
Many, of course, speak of giving things up for Lent, and giving up things that we might focus on Christ and what He has done for us can be a good thing. But, we need to always remember that our giving up something, whether it be through fasting or some other form of self-denial, can never merit God’s favor or blessing. Our observance of Lenten self-sacrifice will not somehow atone for our sins and make us acceptable to God. It is only through faith in the shed blood of Christ Jesus, the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world (John 1:29), that we receive God’s pardon and forgiveness and are acceptable in His sight.
As the Apostle Paul writes, “by grace are ye saved through faith; and that not of yourselves: it is the gift of God: not of works, lest any man should boast” (Eph. 2:8-9).
It’s really too bad that more people do not observe Lent in a Biblical and Scriptural way — not just giving up some item for 40 days but, rather, repenting of sin and evil and looking to Christ and His cross for pardon, forgiveness and life eternal. In fact, it’s sad that true Lenten contrition and repentance are not observed by more people year-round!
[Scripture is quoted from the King James Version of the Bible.]