What is Ash Wednesday? And, for that matter, what is Lent? On February 14, 2018 we will begin the observance of that season of the church year we know as Lent. February 14 is an odd mix of observances, in fact, as it is both St. Valentine’s Day and Ash Wednesday. This means that many folks, rather than being in worship, may be out having dinner or watching a movie with their significant other. But while the commercial and cultural importance of St. Valentine’s Day far overshadows that of Ash Wednesday (I doubt if anyone of you has ever received a “Happy Ash Wednesday” card!), as far as our life of faith goes Ash Wednesday is a bigger deal. Ash Wednesday has its origins as far back as the early 5th century, when it was simply called the “Beginning of the Fast”. It was the first day of Lent, a time of fasting, prayer, and repentance, marking the 40 days prior to Maundy Thursday, the day Christians remember the last night Jesus spent with his disciples and the institution of the Lord’s Supper (Holy Communion). On Ash Wednesday Christians begin their journey of Lent with the imposition of ashes on their foreheads, in the form of a cross, a symbol of sorrow and repentance for sin (ashes being a sign of mourning in ancient Judaism) and our reliance on what Christ has done for us on the cross for forgiveness of our sin and the new life we have in him. During the 40 days of Lent (the word comes from the old Anglo-Saxon term for “spring”) we focus on our relationship with Christ, in prayer, Scripture reading, acts of devotion and good works, and special times of worship. We particularly remember Christ’s great sacrifice for us, and allow that to motivate us to be better witnesses for him in the world. Lent had its origins in the time of preparation for Christian baptism, as candidates for baptism were taught the Scriptures and the orthodox Christian faith. Since many came from pagan backgrounds, they had much to learn. While this practice is not so common today, we still see the observance of Lent as a useful time to increase our faith and better our walk with Christ.
The Gospel of Mark: This year in the lectionary calendar for the church year (the lectionary being a selection of readings, generally an Old Testament, Psalm, Epistle, and Gospel text for each Sunday of the year) we focus on Mark. The “Year of Mark” is designated as “Year B”, with “Year A” focusing on Matthew and “Year C” on Luke. You may wonder about John—his gospel is spread out as readings over the entire three year span, but features most prominently in “Year B”. This is doubtless due to the fact that Mark’s gospel (gospel coming from the Old English “godspel”—“good tale”) is the shortest of the four—at 16 chapters. Matthew’s narrative runs 28 chapters, and Luke’s 24, with John’s coming in at 21. Mark is considered one of the “Synoptic Gospels”, along with Matthew and Luke (“synoptic” meaning to “take the same or common view”). Those three gospels share much of their content in common, with John being very different. Mark is widely considered the oldest of the four gospels, having been composed between 64—70 AD, around the time of the ruinous First Jewish War with Rome and the destruction of the Temple. Mark’s gospel emphasizes the failures of Jesus’ first disciples, perhaps inspired by the first great persecution of Christians that took place during the reign of Nero following the Great Fire in Rome in 64 AD. While many Christians bravely testified to their faith in Christ and were martyred, others were likely not so brave, and either renounced their faith or sought other means of avoiding death and suffering. The failure of the Twelve would have been a message to the entire Christian community that even the most devoted follower of Jesus can falter—but will be welcomed back into the fold when they acknowledge their sin and seek forgiveness. Mark uses the term “immediately” often as a way to move his narrative along. There is not story of Jesus’ birth (unlike Matthew and Luke), and no account of the risen Jesus (the end of Mark is rather abrupt—the women, who find the tomb empty, run away, terrified, after being told by an angel that Jesus had been raised. During most of 2018 we will be dwelling in Mark’s gospel, so it would be a good idea to read this short book at one or two sittings to get an overview of the life, work, and teaching of Jesus according to Mark the evangelist.