Today is Ash Wednesday.
The Lenten season is come.
Catholics, many protestants, and other portions of Christendom are already observing.
So what is this all about?
Truth is, I can’t remember ever hearing the why behind Lent beyond generalities — viz. that it’s tradition. And who can argue with fasting?
But what about the specifics of the event? The ash on the forehead, the forty days, the sorrow, etc.?
These specifics did not arise out of a vacuum.
It is said that the rubbing of ash upon the forehead is symbolic of the repentant within ancient Nineveh who wore sackcloth and ashes.
Thus modern man’s wearing of the same on his brow is said to be a sign of continued repentance.
The cross itself is a sign of dominion over the wearer. A sign of ownership.
This is contemporary convention.
Remembering repentant communities (comprised of repentant individuals) is a wonderful thing – scripture regularly calls us to remember.
The general acceptance of the symbol of the cross as a sign may be fine, though I personally debate its position (if there is one) within the church.
I don’t believe that the symbol of the cross is a symbol for Christ himself as He is not a symbol. Rather, and undisputedly, it is a symbol of capital punishment under the Empire of Rome. (Deuteronomy 21:22-23 refers to the cross as the “accursed tree.” Christian hymns also call upon this particular reference.)
So if the cross on the forehead means dominion, whose is it: Christ’s or Rome’s?
Of course, we have inexpressible gratitude for what happened after the death of our Lord on the cross – the resurrection – but should the cross itself be held up as a central item still today?
The cross – that accursed cross – was a bridge only. It fulfilled its purpose within a few hours and was then cast aside. The resurrected, victorious Christ is where the Christian looks now and forevermore.
More about Lent.
Forty Days of Fasting
Regarding the number, it’s clear that forty is a significant number in biblical writings – 40 days and nights re: Flood, 40 days re: Moses and the giving of the Ten Commandment, 40 days re: Jesus’ wilderness experience, &c.
And according to the Catholic Educations Resource Center (CERC), “One can safely conclude that by the end of the fourth century, the 40-day period … known as Lent existed” after being formally recognized by the Council of Nicea, A.D. 325.
Prayer, fasting and good works are central themes of Lent. But seeing that these things can be exercised freely by the Christian anytime, why the special emphasis in springtime?
Again citing CERC, Lent is how “the Church prepares the faithful for the celebration of Easter.”
There’s our answer: Easter.
What is Easter?
Searching the New Testament for the term leaves me wanting. I find it once — and only in select translations — via Acts 12:4:
“And when he had apprehended him, he put him in prison, and delivered him to four quaternions of soldiers to keep him; intending after Easter to bring him forth to the people.” (KJV)
In this case, the translators used “Easter” as a gloss of the Greek word “πάσχα” which is translated “pascha” – the word used for Passover.
Most English translations preserve “Passover.”
So I’ll preserve the same and assume that “Easter” isn’t found anywhere in scripture.
So where did we get it from?
Hint: a springtime festival that originated apart from Christianity.
Who is Astarte?
Her name is significant. Here I will refer you to an excerpt from Rev. Alexander Hislop’s The Two Babylons (late 19c.): he provides excellent historical notes on the Chaldean origins of Easter and Lent, including the significance of the forty days, the solemnity of the occasion, “Easter eggs,” etc. See this .pdf excerpt.
It is likely that the vast majority of people in churches today who partake in prayer, fasting and good works specifically during the Lenten season do so without realizing such observances originated apart from any biblical mandate – and that they were assumed “in preparation of” a holiday that pre-existed the church by centuries.
I personally do not fast this season for these reasons, but I certainly do not prescribe my views beyond the door of home. Take it to God in prayer. If conscience permits, proceed.
Be at peace.
Marginalia: I do celebrate Good Friday and Resurrection Sunday – and, despite Saturnalia, celebrate “Christmas” on December 25.