What is Ash Wednesday?

Re-posted from March 17, 2009.  The original title was Ash Wednesday, Lent, (and p.s. Mardi Gras)  The only change is the date in line 2.  

Ash Wednesday

Ash Wednesday occurs 46 days before Easter, 40 days if you don’t count Sundays.  This year it fell on February 22nd.  This marks the beginning of Lent, a time of preparation for Holy Week.  At an Ash Wednesday service, part of the ceremony is placing ashes on the forehead as an outward symbol that you will be observing Lent.  During the 40 day period something is given up, anything typically important to the individual, and more time spent in prayer, worship and meditation.  Lent is about preparing ourselves spiritually to observe Holy Week, the days between Palm Sunday and Easter.

Palm Sunday

Palm Sunday is one week before Easter, and celebrates Jesus’ triumphal entry.  Jesus rode into Jerusalem on the back of a donkey to celebrate Passover.  The crowd shouted “Hosanna”, and waved palm branches.  Actual palm branches may be used in a Palm Sunday service, and those branches will be saved until next year, burned, and the ashes used during the Ash Wednesday service mentioned above.  The same Jews shouting “Hosanna” at Jesus’ entry would be shouting “Crucify him” just a few days later.

Good Friday

On Good Friday we remember that Jesus was crucified.  Some have argued that to spend three days in the grave, Jesus must have been crucified earlier in the week, but the Bible is pretty clear about the Sabbath approaching.  The legs of the crucified were being broken to speed things up, but prophecy was fulfilled when they reached Jesus and found him already dead.  The Sabbath would have began on Friday evening at 6 pm, so he must have died on Friday.  In the Jewish way of thinking, Jesus was dead Friday, Saturday and Sunday.  Think about the words he rose on the third day, and he does not have to be in the grave a full 72 hours.  There is not a contradiction here.  His followers, including Nicodemus according to John’s gospel, placed him in the tomb of Joseph of Arimathea.

Easter

In the true spirit of Holy Week, Easter celebrates the resurrection.  If a preacher wishes to deliver a moving sermon on the ghastly horrors of crucifixion, it should be done on either Palm Sunday or a Good Friday service.  Easter is not about the death of Jesus, it is about resurrection.  Easter celebrates the defeat of death, hell and the grave.  Jesus was not just resurrected; he is the resurrection.

p.s. What is Mardi Gras?

Mardi Gras literally means Fat Tuesday.  During the weeks of Lent, something is given up or the individual fasts.  Often some sin or vice is done without during this time, such as consuming alcohol.  Fat Tuesday is celebrated the day before Ash Wednesday, and is a chance to get all the gluttony out of your system before getting serious about being good.  It’s one last blowout before Lent starts, when one must be chaste and sober.  Observing Mardi Gras without celebrating Lent is akin to trick-or-treating on Halloween without observing All Saints Day.  People that are ignorant of the traditions and customs use it as one more excuse to party.

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