40 days? 40 days.

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40 days? 40 days. by: Ryan Pryor
This week we enter the season of Lent, beginning with Ash Wednesday, which is a day on the church calendar that is rather significant in my life. I first experienced the practice of Ash Wednesday in 2007 while I was writing a paper about its observance for a college class. I knew that some churches spread ashes on people’s foreheads and that many gave up cokes or chocolate for Lent, but this seemingly trite declaration was the extent of my knowledge. However, that winter at an Episcopal Ash Wednesday service in Waco, Texas, this practice changed my life. I sat in the back pew and read along with the liturgy as I admired the 200-year-old dark wood beams that weaved an intricate pattern above me. When invited, I joined the procession to the front to receive the ashes in prayer. As the black ash was brushed across our foreheads, we were reminded that the ashes also serve as a symbol of sorrow, which is an expression of Christian spiritually that I didn’t realize at the time was actually allowed, much less encouraged. In my experience, Christians needed to always be joyful or at least pretend to be. In the Old Testament, ashes were typically used for two purposes: a sign of humility and mortality or as a sign of sorrow and repentance of sin. The observance of Ash Wednesday is the beginning of Lent — a 40-day season of reflection and preparation for the death and resurrection of Jesus. Ash Wednesday prepares us for this season of repentance and reflection on Christ's suffering. Ash Wednesday also allows us to consider how we are called to “take up our cross” during this time so that we may serve my neighbors in love.

“If you cling to your life, you will lose it, and if you let your life go, you will save it.”
- Luke 17:3

On Ash Wednesday, we gather globally as the Christian community to remember that “we are dust and to dust, we will return” and that our beautifully fragile bodies will go the way of the earth. The spiritual practice of having ashes placed on one’s forehead may seem to be only an outer manifestation of an inner spiritual experience. However, it’s also intended to transform our lives within our local and global communities. Ash Wednesday invites us to let go of our life and the unimportant things that distract so that we may become better servants of our brothers, sisters, neighbors, and friends. The practice of Ash Wednesday can engage life's crises because it prompts us to realize both the importance of our individual humanity as well as our shared humanity — created in the image of God. Ash Wednesday orients us to the silence and stillness of the breath that we have all been given by our Creator. Every year, this practice reminds us that Jesus’ proclamation in Luke 4 follows his time in the desert. We too must enter a season of wandering in the wilderness in order to truly be attentive to God’s work in our lives. As followers of Jesus, may we live intensely into this reality. As God led Jesus into the desert for 40 days, let us begin this desert journey with Ash Wednesday so that we too may emerge and announce “good news to the poor."