Ash Wednesday marks the beginning of the liturgical season of Lent. People in the pews may be asking questions. Why do Presbyterians participate in Ash Wednesday? Isn’t it a Roman Catholic rite? What is the purpose of Lent in the Reformed tradition? Are we supposed to give up something for Lent? Congregations, increasingly called to welcome seekers and new Christians, are aware of the importance of defining the language of faith and interpreting the traditions of the community. A basic guide to Lenten practices may be helpful.
The season of Lent leads up to the most holy of Christian days, Easter Sunday. The forty days of Lent begin Ash Wednesday and end at dusk the Saturday before Easter, not counting the Sundays in between. The Sundays during Lent, like every Sunday, are considered weekly celebrations of the resurrection. Many denominations encourage disciples to renew and strengthen their faith during Lent. Plans are made for community-wide Lenten preparation through the spiritual disciplines of prayer, Bible study, fasting, and service.
This preparation is a historical model from the early church. New believers were mentored in the Christian faith weeks before Easter, preparing for their baptisms at the Great Easter Vigil. The idea of giving something up for Lent came out of this tradition, when fasting—abstaining from food as an act of discipline in solidarity with others in the community—was used to raise one’s spiritual consciousness and empty oneself before God. Fasting or giving up something for Lent can be a good way to explore a deeper expression of faith, if not adopted as a show of piety, martyrdom, or moral righteousness. Presbyterians may find it meaningful to give something up for Lent, but it is not required. Some disciples may find a more valuable spiritual exercise in taking something on during Lent—a more Christ-like attitude toward others, a humble spirit at work, or a feeling of gratitude in the midst of scarcity. Whatever spiritual disciplines and preparations are embraced during Lent, they can help us prepare for or renew our baptisms as part of the resurrection celebration at Easter.
Reclaimed by Reformed churches in the last few decades, Ash Wednesday is the entry point for Lenten preparation. It is a service rich in ritual and symbolism. Palms waved at the previous year’s Palm Sunday service are saved and burned to create ashes for the next Ash Wednesday. Participants on Ash Wednesday come forward for a minister or elder to mark their foreheads with the sign of the cross in ashes, saying the words, “You are dust, and to dust you shall return,” from Genesis 3:19. With these words, disciples are reminded of their mortality and, when combined with the sign of the cross, they are also reminded of the hope of the resurrection.
Christians do not receive the sign of the cross to attract attention or to be noticed by others; they receive the sign of the cross to focus on who they are as human beings, bound in death and life to Christ. Ash Wednesday and the season of Lent provide time to explore the mystery at the heart of the gospel that being a Christian means a new life through Christ.
The Thursday before Easter Sunday is the day to commemorate the Last Supper of Jesus with his disciples. The story of Jesus breaking and blessing bread at the Passover meal, as a reminder of his life given freely for all, is told in the books of Matthew, Mark, and Luke. This Passover act became the sacrament of holy communion in the Christian church. Celebration of communion is usually the centerpiece of a Maundy Thursday service.
Another element of a Maundy Thursday service may be the act of foot washing. Many scholars believe the term maundy is taken from the Latin word mandatum or mandate. John’s Gospel does not tell about the institution of communion at his last Passover meal; it highlights the story of Jesus girding himself with a towel, taking a basin of water, and washing his disciples’ feet. John 13:34 includes Jesus’ words, “I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another.” The observance of foot washing is practiced in some Presbyterian churches as a reminder of the kind of love and servanthood Christ asks of his disciples today.
The Friday before Easter is the day to remember the crucifixion and death of Jesus. Many wonder why this day is called good. This Friday is sometimes called Holy or Black Friday, but the term good reminds us of Jesus’ blameless, good, and pious life. Churches sometimes have a special worship service between noon and 3 p.m. to represent the hours that the sky turned dark as Jesus suffered and died. Many congregations base Good Friday worship on Jesus’ last words from the cross.
One other Lenten practice often observed during Holy Week is Tenebrae, Latin for “shadows” or “darkness.” The unique feature of this worship service is the extinguishing of one candle after each reading until the room or sanctuary is totally dark. The darkness reminds those present of the days Jesus spent in the tomb. This service can be held on Maundy Thursday, Good Friday, or Holy Saturday. Scripture for this service usually consists of Gospel readings describing the Last Supper through the crucifixion, including the last words of Jesus from the cross. The end of the service is usually marked by the lighting of one candle, reminding those present that the darkness does not overcome; the light will shine again. Easter is coming!