Lent is a hard, but incredibly good season—a season that initiates the most sacred part of the Christian year. It is the time where we journey with Christ to the cross. It is the time when we see both the enormous cost of our sin, and the enormous love of our Savior. It is the season where we celebrate the incredible mystery (often referred to as the paschal mystery) that life always follows death; resurrection always comes after crucifixion. It is a time where we celebrate the truth that, for God’s people, suffering and sadness and pain and brokenness—and death—do not have the final word, but life (God) does. Thus, it is a season where we are invited by God to “come and die” that we may live.
Lent is a forty-day period (not including Sundays) that is meant to echo the forty days Jesus spent in the desert and the forty days Moses spent on the mountain with God. It begins on Ash Wednesday and concludes on Easter Sunday. Sundays are not included in the forty-day count because every Sunday is a joyful celebration of our Lord's resurrection—a Little Easter. The word Lent is derived from the Old English lencten, which means “spring”; that transitional time between late winter and early summer in which our world begins to wake up from its slumber and come to life once again.
Ash Wednesday (from the Latin Dies Cinerum, meaning "Day of Ashes") is the first day of Lent. On this day, we focus intensely on our utter and complete sinfulness and the necessity of Christ's suffering and death to purchase our salvation. Ashes are referred to many times in the Old Testament as a sign of sorrow, mourning, repentance, and mortality (2 Samuel 13:19; Esther 4:1-3; Job 42:6; and Jeremiah 6:26). Many churches use ashes during Ash Wednesday services as part of a rite called the Imposition of Ashes. According to this custom, ashes (traditionally made by burning palm fronds used on Palm Sunday of the previous year) are mixed with a small amount of olive oil and applied to the forehead of each worshipper. The smudge mark made by the dirty ashes is a powerful reminder that we are all going to die; because death is the high cost of our sinfulness—sin of thought, word, and deed. The fact that the ashes are placed on our foreheads in the sign of the cross focuses us on Jesus, the only way to forgiveness, salvation, and life eternal.
~Jim BranchLent, 2012