Martha-HornThe very early Christian church Fathers encouraged the use of sackcloth and ashes to begin a 40-day season of Lent. This was in reference to the 40 days Jesus spent in the desert being tempted by the devil. Tertullian (c. 160-220 AD) wrote that the penitent must “live without joy in the roughness of sackcloth and the squalor of ashes.” Eusebius (260-340 AD), the famous early church historian, recounted in his “The History of the church” how an apostate named Natalis came to Pope Zephyrinus clothed in sackcloth and ashes begging forgiveness. Also during this time, for those who were required to do public penance, the priest sprinkled ashes on the head of the person leaving confession. Originally Ash usage was the beginning of the conversion journey of the catechumens, those who desired to be Christian and to be baptized. On Ash Wednesday they began by entering into a time of repentance with the application of ashes, followed by 40 days of Lent and catechesis, or Christian discipleship training. Then on Easter they were baptized and became a part of the church community. As the church became more and more knowledgeable of what the scriptures were teaching us through the direction and inspiration of the Holy Spirit. Ashes became the symbol to begin our season of a Holy Lent.

Beginning with Ash Wednesday and ending on Easter Sunday this season is all about our walk with Christ, our discipleship, our sanctification process, and our conversion journey. Taking the time to truly allow the gentle light of the Holy Spirit to shine in our soul: our thoughts, our intentions, our motivations, our habit patterns, times we have held on to unforgiveness, or fund ourselves in a bad habit pattern. To be intentional about our walk with Jesus. Are we followers or merely admirers? Disciples or on lookers?

One of the best examples of this sign of repentance is found in the story of Jonah…When the word of God was proclaimed; the entire city of Nineveh (some historians think there were over 120,000 people) repented and showed that inward work of the heart by sitting in sackcloth and ashes. INCLUDING THE KING HIMSELF…

The work of repentance is an inward work done by the Holy Spirit. Its not about good works, fasting from alcohol, chocolate, Cheetos, FB, or sports…though it can be…IF any of these things are bondages too us and keep us from following the path that the Lord has us on: OUR conversion journey, our walk of discipleship; then to let go of these things for 40 days can create in us NEW HABIT PATTERNS. God can use fasting to help us focus more on the inward work He is trying to do. When we get hungry we turn to Him…

In Matthew 6, we have the ambiguity of Jesus telling us NOT to be like the hypocrites that walk around with a gloomy face, unshaved, dirty clothes, etc. signs of sacrificing, but to wash your face and anoint your head, yet we put an outward sign of our repentance on with ashes. He is of course speaking of the heart and the inward changes that will be reflected in our outward behavior. Lent is more than outward workings of change but its allowing the HS to show us the things within us that we need to repent of, or folks we need to forgive, and habit patterns that need to change. Bondages that need breaking. Things that are like blockages that keep the Holy Spirit from doing a work in our lives. Though we start our Lent with dirty faces, as we seek the Lord to show us where we have fallen short, where we have pretended to be His disciples, though our hearts are not changed, and repent, we will be washed clean in our baptismal vows on Easter Sunday. Ash Wednesday should be the time that calls us back to visit the state of our conversion journey that began with our baptism.

Let us pray:

Almighty Father, show us the areas you want to work in during this season of Lent. We give you permission precious Holy Spirit, to do this work and then by grace, we cooperate with you to set us free to rejoice and shout for joy on Easter Sunday. For as you have said, Lord Jesus Christ, “those whom the SON HAS SET FREE… ARE FREE INDEED”…

The Rev. Martha Horn.

[Martha Horn is a deacon in our Diocese whose husband Robert served as a priest at the Cathedral at one time. She is currently chaplain to the Women’s Ministry of the Diocese. Find out more at https://www.facebook.com/WMofDSC]