As eighteenth century English writer Samuel Johnson might have put it, “Nothing concentrates the mind like knowing that I am dust, and to dust I shall return.” And nothing is a more bracing reminder of that reality than the imposition of ashes on Ash Wednesday. Placed on the forehead in the form of the cross, the ashes symbolize the Great Paradox: to live, I must die.

The Ash Wednesday Rite marks the beginning of the forty-day process from mortification to renewal through the Lenten practices of self-examination, repentance, and spiritual discipline. Although the extent of this process for most early Christians was limited to Holy Week, the current period can be traced to St. Athanasius in the early fourth century based on a rich biblical tradition:

  • Noah spent 40 days on the ark
  • Moses sojourned 40 days on Mt. Sinai
  • The people of Nineveh fasted 40 days after receiving Jonah’s message
  • Elijah traveled 40 days to Mt. Horeb
  • Jesus spent 40 days in desert

In each case, the period of self-denial and deprivation was the means to a higher end than relief from want and need:

  • On the ark, Noah was preparing to replenish the earth
  • On Mt. Sinai, Moses was being groomed to lead the Israelites
  • In Nineveh, the people were making ready for the greatest pagan revival in history
  • On the road to Horeb, Elijah was preparing to meet God for a mission
  • In the desert, Jesus was preparing for his earthly ministry (after his resurrection, he spent 40 days preparing his disciples for Pentecost and the Great Commission).

In the early Church, catechumens who had completed a three-year period of catechesis underwent the forty-day period leading up to Holy week in preparation for baptism and their new life in Christ.

Lent, then, following the pattern of Scripture and early Church tradition, is a period of preparation that looks beyond a one-time event or annual observance to a calling and ministry. Accordingly, we should approach Lent, not just as a time of spiritual reflection and refinement preparing us for Easter, but for our life-long role in making the invisible kingdom visible. And that gets us back to the Great Paradox.

Read more at Crisis. 

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