When I was young attending some church services, one of the images that has stayed with me is the cross on the forehead from our Ash Wednesday service. Forty six days before Easter, we typically celebrate Ash Wednesday, which marks the beginning of the Lenten period of prayer and fasting. Throughout scripture, the use of sackcloth and ashes was often used as an outward display of one’s deep mourning or repentance. Sackcloth was a type of hairshirt, often made from black goat’s hair, which was a physical reminder to the person wearing it of their disposition.
Jonah began by going a day’s journey into the city, proclaiming, “Forty more days and Nineveh will be overthrown.” The Ninevites believed God. A fast was proclaimed, and all of them, from the greatest to the least, put on sackcloth. When Jonah’s warning reached the king of Nineveh, he rose from his throne, took off his royal robes, covered himself with sackcloth and sat down in the dust. Jonah 3:4-6
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
Can you imagine what our culture would be like if we regularly practiced this? Would it be a religious practice – just because everyone does it, or would it help bring about true repentance? Through church history, a type of hairshirt and variations were used by those repenting to induce discomfort or pain. I’m not sure if this always accomplished its intended purpose, but wonder if those of us today who are hesitant to put ashes on our foreheads would even consider embracing deeper forms of repentance. Are you willing to fast from certain foods or other comforts to sharpen your awareness and ability to listen to God in your discomfort? Fasting seems to be a spiritual discipline largely overlooked and underpracticed by the greater Christian community. What has been your experience? Just ask someone who has kept a fast what benefit it brought about in their life? If anything, it will show us what creatures of habit we are and how quickly we turn to material things to comfort and numb us. If you have never tried, or have failed, attempt to give up something that you usually turn to through this Lenten period. Embrace a daily devotional that will help remind you why you are sacrificing as Easter approaches. What new truths can you learn from the life, death, and resurrection of our Lord? As Jesus started his ministry (Luke 4), he read from the following verses:
The Spirit of the Sovereign LORD is on me,
because the LORD has anointed me
to proclaim good news to the poor.
He has sent me to bind up the brokenhearted,
to proclaim freedom for the captives
and release from darkness for the prisoners,
to proclaim the year of the LORD’s favor
and the day of vengeance of our God,
to comfort all who mourn,
and provide for those who grieve in Zion—
to bestow on them a crown of beauty instead of ashes,
the oil of joy instead of mourning,
and a garment of praise instead of a spirit of despair.
They will be called oaks of righteousness,
a planting of the LORD
for the display of his splendor. Isaiah 61:1-3
What do you seek from our God who gives us beauty for ashes, creates joy from sadness and pain, brings light to darkness, and offers living water for parched lives? From a God who can bring us from death to true life, what are you hoping for? How God makes order and progress from this beautiful mess of our imperfect lives often astounds me. Let’s encourage one another on toward deeper understanding and new life as we walk together with our Lord.
Let us draw near to God with a sincere heart and with the full assurance that faith brings, having our hearts sprinkled to cleanse us from a guilty conscience and having our bodies washed with pure water. Let us hold unswervingly to the hope we profess, for he who promised is faithful. And let us consider how we may spur one another on toward love and good deeds. Hebrews 10:22-24
Strength and Courage in Christ,