Today, Ash Wednesday, marks the beginning of the Lenten season for many Christians, especially those who hold to more traditional and liturgical forms of worship.
Lent is 40 days long, corresponding to the 40 days Jesus spent in the wilderness, but extends over a period of 46 days because Sundays are not counted as part of the traditional Lenten season.
Since the date for Easter is set based on the lunar calendar -- the first Sunday after the first full moon on or after the vernal equinox -- the season of Lent begins on different calendar dates each year. This year, Lent begins on Wednesday, Feb. 17, and continues through Saturday, April 3. Easter Sunday is April 4 this year. The first full moon after the vernal equinox is on Palm Sunday, March 28, making Sunday, April 4, the date of Easter in most Western Churches.
In most years, the date for Easter or Pascha falls later in the Eastern Churches. Easter dates were the same for Eastern and Western churches in 2017, but this year the date is May 2 in the East (Eastern Churches use the same formula to determine the date for Easter but use the Julian Calendar, while Western Churches and most of the world use the Gregorian Calendar).
Some churches do not observe the season of Lent at all. It is not specifically commanded or forbidden in the Bible, so churches that do not observe the special season cannot be faulted and anyone who insists it must be strictly observed goes beyond the teaching of the Bible. Nevertheless, the observance of Lent is a good thing if it is observed with the purpose and intent of considering Christ's sufferings and death for the sins of the world (often called His passion) and as a special time of self-examination and repentance.
While many would simply go through the outward forms of repentance -- including ashes on the forehead and fasting during the season -- the Bible calls for true contrition and sorrow over our own sinfulness and faith in the shed blood of Christ Jesus as the atoning sacrifice for our sins.
Psalm 34:18 says: "The LORD is near to the broken-hearted, and saves the contrite of spirit."
Psalm 51:16-17 says: "For You do not desire sacrifice, or I would give it; You do not delight in burnt offering. The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit; a broken and a contrite heart, O God, You will not despise."
John, in his first epistle (1 John 1:8-9; 2:1-2), writes: "If we say that we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us. If we confess our sins, He is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and cleanse us from all unrighteousness. ... If anyone does sin, we have an Advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the Righteous One. He is the atoning sacrifice for our sins, and not for ours only, but also for the sins of the whole world."
God desires that we live in continual repentance -- acknowledging our sinfulness and the judgment we justly deserve but then looking in faith to Christ Jesus and His death on the cross for our sins and trusting that in Jesus we are forgiven and accepted of God. Therefore, as we contemplate the Gospel accounts of Jesus' bitter sufferings and death for the sins of all, it is certainly also a fitting time to examine ourselves and see that it was for our sin that He suffered and died such an agonizing death.
As Isaiah 53:5-6 says, "But he was wounded for our transgressions, he was bruised for our iniquities; the chastisement of our peace was upon him, and by his stripes we are healed. All of us like sheep have gone astray; each of us has turned to his own way, but the Lord has laid on him the iniquity of us all."
Many, of course, speak of giving things up for Lent, and giving up things that we might focus on Christ and what He has done for us can be a good thing. But, we need to always remember that our giving up something, whether it be through fasting or some other form of self-denial, can never merit God's favor or blessing. Our observance of Lenten self-sacrifice will not somehow atone for our sins and make us acceptable to God. It is only through faith in the shed blood of Christ Jesus, the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world (John 1:29), that we receive God's pardon and forgiveness and are acceptable in His sight.
As the Apostle Paul writes, it is "by grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not of yourselves. It is the gift of God, not of works, so that no one should boast" (Eph. 2:8-9).
It's really too bad that more people do not observe Lent in a Biblical and Scriptural way -- not just giving up some item for 40 days but, rather, repenting of sin and evil and looking to Christ and His cross for pardon, forgiveness and life eternal. In fact, it's sad that true Lenten contrition and repentance are not observed by more people year-round!
Randy Moll is the editor of the Westside Eagle Observer and also a pastor at Good Shepherd Evangelical Lutheran Church in Rogers. He may be contacted by email at [email protected] Scripture quoted from The Holy Bible, Modern English Version. Copyright © 2014 by Military Bible Association. Published and distributed by Charisma House. Opinions expressed are those of the author.