I turned 40 years old this past Fall. 40 is a significant number in the Bible. The Genesis flood was accompanied by 40 days and nights of rain. The Jews wandered through their temptation in the desert for 40 years. Jesus spent 40 days in the wilderness fasting and contemplating his mission. It is this last one that is significant on this day.
So, you may ask, how is this my first Ash Wednesday? I have lived through 39 previous Ash Wednesdays in my life, but this year was different. For the first time ever, I joined millions of Christians around the world by having my forehead anointed with ashes.
As Christians, we are to try to be Christ-like in our lives. Such is the meaning of the word. We all fall short, of course. On Ash Wednesday, we take a moment to reflect on our lives and on the ways we have fallen short and we ask God to help us reshape our lives to better serve Him. We repent. In ancient times, people covered themselves with ashes in mourning and also to signify repentance from sins. By anointing our heads with ashes, Christians publicly confess that we are not perfect, that we have flaws, and that we want to do better.
In Christ’s life, he spent forty days in the wilderness fasting and praying. During this time, Satan tempted Jesus to get him to abandon his purpose. During the 40 days leading up to Easter, many people abstain from certain things in their lives to remember this temptation. Symbolically, we are in the wilderness. This period is known as Lent and leads up to Easter, the most sacred of all days to Christians. With the resurrection, Jesus defeated sin and death and made salvation through grace possible for all men willing to accept it.
Significantly, Jesus’ earthly ministry lasted another 40 days until he ascended to Heaven.
That’s a layman’s nutshell version of the meaning of this day. I have always known it, but I have never observed it for the Christian experience it really is. It is a time to look to the sky and contemplate Christ’s purpose for our lives just as he contemplated his mission during his spiritual retreat.