Photo: Paul Jeffrey/ACT Alliance
Forty is a number used throughout scripture, a number matched with many sacred journeys.
Forty days and forty nights, Noah is at sea, his family wondering what’s going on, and two of every creature getting restless in the cargo hold.
Forty years, Moses wanders the desert, leading people who don’t want to be led, listening to them tell him how he ought to be doing his job and how they were happier where they used to be.
Forty days, Jesus draws away from the crowds, preparing for his ministry to begin. Forty days he endures temptation: to display his power; to take advantage of his unique and divine nature; to give in to an easy path instead of doing the hard work of God’s realm.
In the early church, around the 4th century, Christians began to mark a season of forty days, too.
In those early days of being Jesus followers, believers had often started somewhere else first – a national religion that worshiped a figurehead, a generational ritual that honored a variety of gods, or some combination of many beliefs and none at all. To now be among the first stumbling followers of this new Messiah/Savior, to know the Divine Creator most closely through and because of him, was sometimes a big leap. So a season of preparation came into play.
New believers spent forty days in study and prayer, sometimes even mimicking Jesus and going off on their own to a wilderness. At the end of their study and following a Holy Saturday vigil, the new believers would be baptized at Easter and claimed fully into the life of the church.
In the same way that we stand and respond together when someone joins our faith community today, the earliest believers recognized and reminded each other of that gut-level human instinct, enfleshed in the earliest beings of creation: We are not here to be alone. As a new believer would study and pray in this 40 days season of preparation, the community of faith would honor them by studying and praying as well. The road of faithful following is not one of ease, nor of comfort, nor even always total joy. And so if there is a journey to be taken, it is best no one journeys on their own.
The 40 days of Lent, from Ash Wednesday to Easter – the dying to, the giving up, the taking on, the prayer, the study, the fasting, the giving – isn’t about us, at all. It isn’t about us as individuals grasping at some random practice in an effort to be better people. It isn’t even about a whole community of faith pointing itself in a renewed direction. It is about setting ourselves aside, and recognizing that God is already working – working in us, working on us, and working for us – and that our only job is to muster the courage to get out of the way of what God is already doing.
Ash Wednesday is about the mess of the human experience. It's about the oil and the ash making a print on our skin. The mark of the cross is our confession, and it is our forgiveness.
Remember that you are dust, and to dust you will return, in the sure and certain hope of the resurrection.
From everlasting to everlasting, you are God.
Having made all that is, you fill all that will be
with your breath, with your wisdom, with your strength.
In our moments of weakness, may we draw on your power,
and may our moments of power be tempered with your humility.
We pray for all in need of healing and comfort,
for those who feel lost and afraid,
for those who need an extra measure of courage
to speak up
to ask for help
to be the one who offers it…
courage to be faithful in each day.
Remind us that sometimes we are the ones who make things difficult.
Let us repair any damage,
so we may walk a more faith-filled road.
Give us your attention, and draw our attention toward you,
that we might build our relationships with one another
and that those relationships might reflect your compassion into this world that surely needs it.
Guide us, direct us, protect us, uplift us,
fill us with your breath, and with your wisdom.
We pray with ashes on our heads, and your breath in our lungs,
in the name and for the sake of Jesus Christ. Amen.
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