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Why Ashes? And Why give things up for Lent?

Perhaps the two most commonly asked questions about Ash Wednesday and the season of Lent are, "why do we put ashes on our foreheads?" and "Why do we give things up for Lent? 

Let me take a stab at answering those questions today:

We put ashes on our foreheads because ashes have long been a sign of our mortality. "Mortality," means, of course, we are mortal. Human. Not divine or angelic. We are "formed of the earth, and to earth we one day return...ashes to ashes, dust to dust."

Ash Wednesday is a kind of Christian Yom Kippur - and as Rabbi Alexis Roberts says of that day, "Many say we're practicing to be dead: looking over our values, accomplishments, and failures as though it was all over and now we have to make an accounting."


Because most of us live fairly busy lives and don't take much time for deep reflection, Ash Wednesday is a good day to ask questions we don't often pause long enough to ask. Questions like author Steven Covey encourages us to ask:  

"What kind of wife, mother, daughter -- what kind of husband, father, son, would you like to be remembered as?"

"What contributions, what achievements do you want people to remember after you're gone?"

"Think of the people around you -- the people you are closest to, the people with whom you spend the most time -- what difference would you like to have made in their lives?"

Talk about beginning with "the end in mind" -- that's THE end, our end, that ashes can help keep in mind. 

So ashes on Ash Wednesday remind us of our mortality, and are therefore a good chance to start, or restart our lives with "the" end in mind.

So, why do we give things up for Lent

Why are we encouraged, during Lent to take on the ancient spiritual practices of prayer, fasting, and almsgiving? 

Why the customary emphasis on giving up sweets and/or alcohol and/or tobacco for the forty days (and nights!) of Lent?   

We take those practices on and we give those things up for Lent for the same, very simple reasons:

To find out what has a hold on us. 

To find out what we have become unduly attached to.

 To find out what lesser things, people, and habits we have settled for as substitutes for an adventure with God.

The point of prayer, fasting, and giving away more money is not to make ourselves suffer; the point is to learn something about ourselves. 

The point is to learn what we have become enslaved to; what has been robbing our freedom, or making us less than fully free and joy-filled.  

The intention of discipline like prayer, fasting, and alms-giving, in other words, is meant to help us explore the mystery of our hearts. They are meant to force us to ask questions about ourselves...wrestle with things about ourselves we normally don't. 
  
And so here's a radical thought (and by "radical" I mean rooted, rooted in the Bible and in Christian history) -

The practices of prayer, fasting, and giving away money, like the practice of worship, are not meant to be ends in themselves. Those practices, like all religious practices, are meant to be means to an end, and the "end" is to kick up questions like the ones above: questions about our end purpose in life, and questions which, if we stick with them long enough, will transform our behavior and our life.

Turns out that ashes and spiritual practices have the same purpose, then: to help us love God and love our neighbor as ourselves.

If they aren't doing that, then they aren't serving their purpose. And neither are we. 

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