People keep time by a variety of calendars. The calendar year runs from January to December. Businesses operate on a fiscal year. Families with children follow the school calendar. Kindergarten students learn about the four seasons of spring, summer, fall, and winter.
ESPN fans divide the year into sports’ seasons. Hunters anticipate dove, deer, or turkey season. Meteorologists warn about hurricane and tornado seasons. Merchants depend upon the holiday season.
The church marches to the beat of its own time. The Christian calendar begins with Advent—the four Sunday season prior to Christmas. The “twelve days of Christmas” celebrate Christ’s coming into the world. Epiphany begins with Jesus’ baptism and recounts Christ’s early ministry.
During the 40 days of Lent, believers prepare their hearts for the events of Holy Week. Easter proclaims that Jesus Christ is risen indeed! Fifty days later the festival of Pentecost recalls God’s gift of the Holy Spirit.
The annual cycle rehearses the story of Christ and the church. The seasons recall Jesus’ birth, life, teaching, death, resurrection, and ascension. The Christian calendar baptizes ordinary time with sacred meaning.
This year Lent begins on Wednesday, February 10. The 40 day season (excluding Sundays) concludes the Saturday before Easter. The somber, reflective time calls Christians to prepare their hearts to hear once again the story of Jesus’ suffering and death.
During Lent, many believers “give up” something as a reminder of Christ’s sacrifice. Others “take up” a spiritual discipline or charitable cause in imitation of God’s love.
Ash Wednesday marks the beginning of Lent. During the service, the minister marks believers’ foreheads in the sign of the cross. Traditionally, ashes from the previous year’s Palm Sunday fronds are used. Since Old Testament times, God’s people have observed penitential times with sackcloth and ashes.
During the imposition of the cross with ashes, the minister typically says:
- Remember you are dust and to dust you shall return.
- Repent and believe in the gospel.
The ashes and words serve as reminders of humanity’s mortality and sinfulness. However, the sign of the cross recognizes God’s gifts of eternal life and forgiveness.
The churches of my youth did not observe Ash Wednesday. I learned about the service along with the Lenten season during seminary. Now I find Ash Wednesday to be one of the most meaningful worship services of the Christian year.
The Christian calendar reminds us that each day is “God-breathed.” The seasons of the church year rehearse God’s salvation story. On Ash Wednesday, we begin the journey to the cross and empty tomb. During this 40 day journey, we are invited to walk in the footsteps of Jesus.