Every year Mardi Gras or Fat Tuesday comes to an abrupt end at midnight.
New Orleans police shut down the Mardi Gras festivities promptly at 12 a.m. in reverence for Ash Wednesday.
The stroke of midnight is the moment Bourbon Street revelers stop their celebrations.
The echoes of “Throw me something mister or ma’am” quickly fade into the darkness, and the revelry stops.
Then, for the next 40-day period from Ash Wednesday, not counting Sundays, worshippers are called to reflect and prepare their hearts for the hope of the resurrection on Easter Sunday.
On Ash Wednesday, churches will burn old palm branches or something similar and place a cross of ashes on the foreheads of those who participate in Ash Wednesday during the service.
It is a reminder that life is short lived.
It is a reminder that we were made from dust, and the ashes remind us we will be that way again one day.
“By the sweat of your face you will eat bread until you return to the ground, for from it you were taken; for you are dust, and to dust you shall return.” Genesis 3:19
The sign of the cross on the forehead or hand is a sign of repentance from sin.
Then Jesus went into Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God.
“The time has come,” he said. “The kingdom of God has come near. Repent and believe the good news!” Mark 1:14-15
In the Bible, ashes were a sign of mourning.
Ashes are used to symbolize that we mourn our sin and need to be forgiven.
“Now on the twenty-fourth day of this month the children of Israel were assembled with fasting, in sackcloth, and with dust on their heads.” Nehemiah 9:1
Also during Lent, some people fast.
People think of “giving up” something for Lent.
The purpose of fasting for Lent is to draw closer in our relationship with God.
Some people give up meat.
Others give up sweets or alcohol or television or social media.
But, even that might be enough to get a person in a true Lenten mood.
In the Bible fasting only included fasting from food, but fasting for Lent in current terms is used in a wider sense to include giving up something that is important to the person or something he/she spends a lot of time doing.
If you want to face a real Lenten challenge try giving up your cellphone for 40 days.
Each Sunday of Lent, the fast is broken, and then resumed the next day.
So, when we participate in Ash Wednesday and Lent practices, it is to remind us to turn our thoughts toward God and recognize our sinful nature and our need for God.
This makes us focus on the aspect that our lives are short, and eternity is forever.
When we have eternity on our minds, we can better reflect on the way we are living.
After the Ash Wednesday service, worshippers generally leave the ashes on their forehead and continue the rest of their day/evening as they usually would.
Having to identify with Jesus Christ in such a public way can cause various emotions and thoughts in people:
Do we mind being identified as a Christian?
Do we hope that no one asks us about the cross?
Are we nervous about how we will respond if someone asks?
Could we explain the gospel to someone who asks?
Are we hoping someone will ask so we have the opportunity to share?
As the Apostle Peter challenges us, “But in your hearts revere Christ as Lord. Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have. But do this with gentleness and respect.” 1 Peter 3:15
Having to struggle with these questions can help us see how certain we are about our knowledge of the gospel.
It can also show us if we are timid or bold about our relationship with Jesus Christ.
Ash Wednesday and Lent are celebrated in different ways, in various degrees, among the churches today.
I encourage you, if your church celebrates Ash Wednesday and Lent, don’t become dispassionate to its meaning.
May you grow closer to Jesus during these 40 days leading up to the ultimate celebration of the resurrection.
Rev. Frank Chlastak began work as senior minister of First Christian Church (Disciples of Christ), Poplar Bluff on Sunday, Sept. 13, 2015.