Ash Wednesday and the Sacred Season of Lent

The Holy Gospel for Ash Wednesday (St. Matthew 6:1–6, 16–21) sets before us several key practices of the Christian faith and life – namely, fasting, almsgiving, and prayer – which are appropriately intensified during the sacred Season of Lent. Undertaken as an exercise of faith and love in Christ, these fundamental Christian disciplines serve and support the Christian life and facilitate the fruits of repentance in all of our various relationships, callings, and stations.

Fasting is an exercise of self-denial, a conscious and deliberate resisting of our fleshly appetites (whether for food and drink or for other aspects of God’s good Creation). Such fasting stands in striking contrast to the grasping and eating of the forbidden fruit by Adam & Eve in the Garden, whereas it follows the example of our Lord Jesus Christ, who fasted forty days and forty nights in the wilderness and even then rejected the devil’s temptation to feed Himself by turning stones into bread (St. Matthew 4:1–4). By this discipline of fasting, we train ourselves to hunger, not for the food that perishes, but for every Word that comes from the mouth of God, and for the Living Bread with which He feeds us from heaven (St. John 6:26–33).

Almsgiving encompasses the charity that is provided for the care of the poor and needy, over and above a Christian’s regular and ongoing support of the Church and Ministry of the Gospel. Such almsgiving often accompanies the discipline of fasting, because that practice of self-denial also allows for greater generosity in serving the neighbor. In this way, it is not simply a matter of “giving up something for Lent,” but of sacrificing self in order to love and care for others.

Prayer is, of course, the calling and occupation of all Christians at all times and in all places. It is the very voice of faith and a participation in the priestly intercessions of Christ Jesus, who is our own merciful and great High Priest in all things pertaining to God (Hebrews 2:17; Romans 8:34). As He offered Himself once for all, a Ransom for the many, and as He prayed for those who put Him to death (1 Timothy 2:5–6; St. Luke 23:34), so do we also pray without ceasing and not lose heart (St. Luke 18:1; 1 Thess. 5:16–17). In addition to praying daily for our own needs, for our families, churches, and communities, we also offer “supplications, prayers, intercessions, and thanksgivings” for all people, “for kings and all who are in high positions” (1 Timothy 2:1–2). We likewise pray and intercede for our enemies and those who persecute us (St. Matthew 5:44). This, too, is another way of putting to death the inclinations of our fallen flesh and aligning our hearts and minds with the grace and mercies of God in Christ Jesus.

Fasting, almsgiving, and prayer, in accordance with the Word of God, each and all assist the penitent Christian in the ongoing significance of Holy Baptism, to which the sacred Season of Lent points us and returns us. The three disciplines of faith and life, each in its own way, turn us away from ourselves – outside of ourselves – and turn our attention, instead, toward God in holy faith and toward our neighbors in holy love. These are among the ways that we journey with our Lord Jesus through the wilderness of repentance toward the Paradise that He has prepared for us.

O Lord, throughout these forty days You prayed and kept the fast; inspire repentance for our sin, and free us from our past. Though parched and hungry, yet You prayed and fixed Your mind above; so teach us to deny ourselves, since we have known God’s love. Be with us through this Season, Lord, and all our earthly days, that when the final Easter dawns, we join in heaven’s praise” (LSB 418, stzs. 1, 3-4).