Ash Wednesday marks the beginning of Lent this year on Wednesday, February 17. On this day we begin the 40 day journey to our Easter celebration on April 4. But what is Lent? Why do we have a season called "Lent?" The season of Lent began as a time when those preparing for baptism on Easter would spend time in prayer in scripture study. It was a time of rigorous study and formation for a life of faith. Later on, the emphasis on preparation for baptism was overshadowed by a time of repentance and self-discipline -- still in preparation for Easter. The season was -- and is -- 40 days to match the 40 days that Jesus spent in the wilderness at the beginning of his ministry, and the 40 years the Israelites spent wandering in the wilderness as they prepared to enter the promised land.
During Lent we emphasize fasting, giving and prayer -- three spiritual disciples (this is where "giving up something for Lent" comes from.) But why begin with "Ash Wednesday"? Ash Wednesday, the first day of Lent, is a day to turn toward and acknowledge our own mortality, our frailty and dependance on God. The ashes that we usually wear are a reminder that we are dust - - and that our eternal lives are in God's hands.
This year, in the middle of a pandemic (although with an end in sight), we perhaps need no reminder of our mortality. This is partly because of the tool of the pandemic itself, but it is partly because of our own experiences as a congregation this past year. So as we gather on Ash Wednesday, we will not have the imposition of ashes as usual. I do invite you, if you would like to do so, to save some leaves and burn them yourselves, mix them with a little oil, and mark yourself and the people in your family. You don't have to -- but it is a way to practice the ancient reminder of our faith.
Lent is a time of repentance -- but it is a time of joy as well. It is ultimately joyful to place our lives and our hopes in God's hands, to give up the heavy burdens that we carry of trying to run our own lives. Lent is a time to give it to God, again and again, as we learn and re-learn the basics of our faith, and plan for a joyful Easter.