Today, Ash Wednesday, marks the beginning of Lent for Christians. It is a time of fasting and reflection, a time for spiritual growth and awareness.
As Christians begin this Lenten season, here are six facts about Ash Wednesday and what it represents:
1.) Season of Lent. Lent is traditionally a 40-day period of fasting leading up to Easter Sunday. The 40-day fast (self-denial of certain foods, beverages, or luxuries) is in tribute to Jesus' own 40-day fast prior to His temptation in the wilderness (Matthew 4:2).
In a world is full of distraction, Lent allows the opportunity to reconnect with God the Father through God the Son.
Fasting is not about punishment, but it is a physical way to remember a spiritual need. For example, when fasting, the physical sensation of hunger or craving will remind one to pray for a particular request or re-focus on a spiritual topic.
2.) Exterior Expression. Ashes represent humility, grief, and remorse. In the Old Testament, ashes were the remnant of the sacrifice as atonement for sin. Job sat in ashes and poured ashes over his head during his trials. After she was raped, Tamar tore her beautiful robe and put ashes on her head. It is an outward sign of internal mourning. But it is also a sign to God of submission. The Jews put on sackcloth and ashes in preparation for Esther's meeting with the Persian King.
3.) Mortality. Ashes are symbolic of the creation of the first man, and the destruction caused by the first sin. In Genesis 3:19, God tells Adam, "For dust you are and to dust you will return." Man was bestowed life by God's breath, and his life is dependent upon the will of God. Although humans are more than flesh and bone, our physical bodies will waste away. Upon physical death, the body will return to the Earth from which it came -- ashes to ashes, dust to dust.
4.) Palm Sunday Branches. The Sunday before Easter is remembered as Palm Sunday. Just five days before His crucifixion, Jesus Christ rode into Jerusalem on a donkey to the shouts of "Hosanna!" and "Blessed is He who comes in the name of the Lord!"
The people laid down palm branches on the road. It was a joyful day, but ominous as the beginning of the Passion Week. Palm branches today are handed out on Palm Sunday as a reminder of Jesus' triumphal entry to Jerusalem. The palm branches of the prior year are burned and the ashes are saved for the next Ash Wednesday.
5.) Repentance. As God faithfully and continually calls to all people, Ash Wednesday is a reminder to repent of sin and turn to God for grace and forgiveness. The ashes represent not only the recognition of sin, but God's provision for a Savior. God did not abandon His creation to hopelessness.
Instead, He provided the Way, the Truth, and the Path to reconciliation with Him. Ash Wednesday marks the beginning of a time of reflection and sadness, but also a time of joy. Christ came, died, but most importantly and significantly, He rose again.
6.) Spiritual Renewal. Lent is a time to restore, refresh, and refocus on one's spiritual growth. God's love is never-changing. But the world is full of distraction and deception. Lent allows the opportunity to reconnect with God the Father through God the Son. It is an opportunity to fast not for pride's sake, nor for the purpose of discipline, but to renew one's faith -- to recognize sin and rejoice in the opportunity for forgiveness.
Katie Nations is a working mother of three young children. She lives in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma.