Tomorrow is Ash Wednesday, the start of a 40-day Lenten period leading up to Easter Sunday. In my childhood religious tradition, we marked this season by getting a mark--an ash-imprinted cross drawn with the thumb on our forehead. This ceremony traces its history back to 6th century Roman Catholicism and gained universal acceptance 500 years later. In the Old Testament, ashes were a sign of humility and repentance. Thus, the Ash Wednesday custom signifies subjection to God's rule and sorrow for having broken God's law: "So I turned to the Lord God and pleaded with him in prayer and petition, in fasting, and in sackcloth and ashes." [Daniel 9:3]
With ash comes abstinence. Traditionally, Lenten observers have given up something during this time. Some abstain from television, others from caffeine, meat, chocolate, Facebook, their mobile phone or the sports section of their newspaper. This voluntary "fast" accomplishes three spiritual goals.
First, denying our appetite and passions is symbolic of the daily decision we must make to say "no" to the cravings of our flesh. Jesus said,“If anyone would come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross and follow me" [Matthew 16:24]. The normal spiritual life is a humble discipline of denial.
Second, abstinence turns our heart to God. The conscious act of turning down whatever my heart or stomach yearns for brings to mind the reason why I'm abstaining in the first place. In other words, the moment I say "No," the question comes, "Why?" Instantly, the Lord and my life in Him come squarely into view. Conscious refusal leads to conscious reflection.
Third, refusing the common, expected "food" each day leads me to lean upon the Lord for my daily bread. The more that is stripped away, the more that I discover the sufficiency of God for everything I need. I also find that He is more satisfying than anything else in the world. I want to be able to unreservedly say, "Whom have I in heaven but you? And earth has nothing I desire besides you" [Psalm 73:25].
Noel Piper reflects, "Traditionally Lent is a season of sober, realistic reflection on our own lives and our need for a Savior. It is a time for turning away from anything that has kept us from God and for turning or returning to him. It is a time to pray that God renew our love for him and our dependence on him." This year, I invite you to join me in this spiritual exercise. Let's enter into ashes and abstinence as we journey to the cross and resurrection of Jesus who gave up all for us so that we might gain everything in Him.