Ash Wednesday

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To listen to this reflection as a podcast, click here.
If you’ve been a Morning Reflections reader for a few years, you know that on Ash Wednesday we typically use a Q&A format to address some of the questions associated with this first day of Lent.  What’s different this year?  Check out the section that deals with the special topic we’ll be pursuing between now and Easter.   
What exactly is Lent?
The word comes from the Old English term for “lengthen.”  As Easter approaches, the amount of daylight grows longer. 

More than a thousand years ago, followers of Jesus began to set aside the 40 days before Easter as a kind of annual spiritual journey – an opportunity to reconnect with God in specific ways. 

This year Easter Sunday is April 9.  If you do the math, you’ll discover there are actually 46 days between February 22 and April 9.  The six “extra” days represent the six Sundays during Lent.  Some Christians treat these Sundays as “little Easters” – they are like rest stops on the journey in which some folks choose step back, for 24 hours, from their Lenten commitments. 
By Lenten commitment, do you mean giving something up?
Yes, a number of people choose to give up something for Lent.  Think of taking something out of your backpack before beginning a 40-day hike.  “I choose not to carry this around with me for the next six weeks.” 

As we noted yesterday, during the Middle Ages it was common for Christians to give up meat, fish, eggs, and butter throughout Lent.  Nowadays it’s more typical for Westerners to surrender one of those things that can so easily become addictive – perhaps soda, coffee, chocolate, cigarettes, television, social media, or video games.  It doesn’t take much for us to realize that these are probably things we could and should surrender for far longer than 40 days. 
Can Lent also be a time to “take on” a new habit or practice?
Absolutely.  The balance, in fact, is quite healthy.  Just as we leave something behind on this spiritual journey, we also pick up a new perspective or behavior or commitment. 

For you that might be an accelerated pattern of personal prayer or Bible reading.  It could mean writing a daily thank-you note to 40 different people or choosing to offer a special word of encouragement to someone every day, especially concerning the “reopening” of our lives after several years of pandemic restrictions.  It might mean pursuing a specific plan to serve the poor.  The options are endless.
Will the Morning Reflections have a special Lenten focus this year?
Yes.  Beginning tomorrow and going through Good Friday, each day we’ll spotlight one of the Bible’s “3:16” verses.  That means we’ll zero in on 32 of the Old or New Testament texts that happen to fall on the 16th verse of the third chapter.
I readily admit this approach has a number of potential pitfalls.  First, there’s nothing mystical about the designation “3:16.”  Chapters and verses weren’t part of any of the original biblical documents.  They were first added by Archbishop of Canterbury Stephen Langton in A.D. 1227 to make it easier to locate particular texts.  Thus it’s entirely arbitrary that “for God so loved the world he gave his only Son” turned out to be John 3:16. 
Since that verse has been widely revered as a capsule summary of the Good News, and since it’s been displayed on placards at countless sporting events (not to mention on the face paint of players like Tim Tebow), “3:16” has almost become a Christian symbol.  Interestingly – and no, I don’t put any stock in so-called Bible Numerology – a number of other “3:16” texts also happen to make significant theological statements.  Therefore, we’ll use those seemingly arbitrary numbers to direct us into some worthy Lenten discussions.  No matter what, it will be easier than usual to remember the biblical addresses of those texts.  They’re all 3:16s.  
Of course, “good Bible study” isn’t done one verse at a time.  It’s never wise or appropriate to tear a single statement away from its original setting.  As the old saying goes, “A text without a context is a pretext.” Therefore we will also do our best to acknowledge the paragraph, chapter, and entire book that surrounds each “3:16.” 
With those safeguards in mind, it will be a joy to pursue this Lenten journey with you.
But isn’t Lent just for Catholics?
In truth, these special days are celebrated across the entire Christian spectrum.  But since they got traction during the Middle Ages, their association with Catholicism has been particularly long and strong.
What do the ashes mean?

Many followers of Jesus smear ashes on their foreheads in the shape of the cross on this first day of Lent.  This tradition reflects a number of images from Scripture. 

There we learn that life is fragile (“ashes to ashes and dust to dust”).  We recall the ashes of incinerated sacrifices: our surrender of something we count valuable in order to gain something even more valuable – a heart that is turned toward God.  And we remember that people in Bible times, in order to express extreme anguish over the condition of their souls, would sometimes sit in sackcloth and ashes.
One poignant Catholic tradition is to incinerate the palm leaves used in the prior year’s Palm Sunday service, and to keep them for use on Ash Wednesday. 

This day is essentially a time to remember not only that life can be hard, but that it’s really hard to try living apart from a relationship with God.
What if I completely blow my Lenten commitments?
You won’t be the first person.  Or the last. 

Always remember:  God won’t love you more if you think you “succeed” in following him.  And God won’t love you less if you fall flat on your face. 

What comes, after all, at the end of the season of Lent?  We arrive at the cross, where Jesus died for our sins and failures. 

And then comes Easter with its assurance that the worst thing that ever happened to the best Person who ever lived will ultimately bring about the best things that can ever happen to us.