The History of Lent

By Mary Pandiani
Executive Director
Selah Center

Ash Wednesday is the day on which the season of Lent begins. It is named for the ashes used in the service to make the sign of the cross on one’s forehead. Created from last year’s Palm Sunday palms, the ashes are used to remind worshipers that all humans are mortal, hence the phrase used at committal services in cemeteries: “ashes to ashes, dust to dust.” This phrase, in turn, is based in part on Genesis 3:19, the concluding words of God’s words to Adam who hides in shame, recognizing the separation from God that entered human experience and history in the Garden of Eden:

                        By the sweat of your face you shall eat bread until you return to the ground, for
out of it you were taken; you are dust, and to dust, you shall return

Genesis 3:19

The use of ashes is based on the practice in biblical times of imposing ashes as a sign of penitence and mourning about that separation. We are mourning sin that so easily entangles us and our world, the separation that leads to human mortality, resulting in death.

Lent is a period of forty days of spiritual preparation for Easter. The forty days are taken from Jesus’ forty days of temptation in the wilderness before His ministry began. The counting of the days excludes Sundays, which are regarded as “little Easters,” thus the total of 47 days. The English word “Lent” comes from a German word which means “spring.” The observance of a 40-day period of preparation for Easter in the Christian Church can be traced back as far as 325 AD. The name “Lent” came much later. Historically, it has especially involved the spiritual discipline of prayer, fasting, and almsgiving.

In present time, regardless of a particular church tradition, the season becomes a time of reflection and intention to honor the life, ministry, death, and resurrection of Jesus the Christ. It provides a time to consider one’s own life in light of a relationship with the Holy Mystery we call God, knowing we are being invited, again and again, into a transforming communion. No longer separated, we linger in this place of prayer, fasting, and giving of ourselves to God and others. The faint hope of Easter, ever present, builds through the season, preparing our hearts to receive the gift of God’s self in Jesus the Christ, an ongoing discovery of what resurrection offers us all.

Blessing the Dust

For Ash Wednesday


All those days

you felt like dust,

like dirt,

as if all you had to do

was turn your face

toward the wind

and be scattered

to the four corners

or swept away

by the smallest breath

as insubstantial—

did you not know

what the Holy One

can do with dust?

This is the day

we freely say

we are scorched.

This is the hour

we are marked

by what has made it

through the burning.

This is the moment

we ask for the blessing

that lives within

the ancient ashes,

that makes its home

inside the soil of

this sacred earth.

So let us be marked

not for sorrow.

And let us be marked

not for shame.

Let us be marked

not for false humility

or for thinking

we are less

than we are

but for claiming

what God can do

within the dust,

within the dirt,

within the stuff

of which the world

is made

and the stars that blaze

in our bones

and the galaxies that spiral

inside the smudge

we bear.

Jan Richardson
Painted Prayer Book

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