“It’s not in Scripture.”
“It’s a tradition of man — and the Bible explicitly condemns traditions of man.”
“You’ve got something on your face…”
If you’re Catholic, it is not uncommon to hear these phrases around the beginning of Lent. In fact, as a practicing Catholic with a Theology degree living in the Bible belt… these are actually comments that I hear fairly often.
So, if you’re like me and hear these comments from time to time, I just want to let you know that there is Scriptural basis for the season of Lent, as well as Scriptural basis for receiving the mark of ashes on your forehead. Let me show you…
The Number 40
This number appears multiple times throughout Scripture… almost too many times to count!
- Noah and his family live through 40 solid days of rain (although they spent much more time than that on the Ark)
- After killing a man and fleeing from Egypt, Moses spends 40 years as a shepherd in the Sinai wilderness.
- Moses spends 40 days and 40 nights on Mt. Sinai on two separate occasions.
- Israelite spies investigated the Promised Land for 40 days before reporting back to their tribesmen
- The Israelites wander in the desert for 40 years before they are allowed to enter the Promised Land, due to their own doubt that they could conquer it.
- Jonah preached in Ninevah for 40 days
- Elijah went 40 days without food and water on Mt Horeb.
- Ezekiel laid on his right side to symbolize the sins of the Kingdom of Judah.
- Jesus endures 40 days of temptation in the desert before he begins his public ministry.
- Jesus and the Apostles spend 40 days together in between the Resurrection and the Ascension.
(…and these are just the ones I know off the top of my head)
Besides the presence of the number 40, all of these occasions have something in common: they are periods of trial, repentance, or probation (or a combination of the three). No matter the difference in time or people, these situations serve a very specific purpose:
They are meant to bring the people into a deeper, closer, more intimate relationship with God.
- If they’re facing a trial, they see how God sustains them and brings them through their circumstances.
- If they’re facing repentance, they are given the time they need to have a true, inner conversion (whether that conversion is big or small).
- If they’re facing probation, though they are disciplined, there is always more mercy.
The Mark of Cain
Cain (of the story “Cain and Abel”) is actually a perfect example of God’s mercy out-weighing his discipline. If you’re familiar with the story, you can recall that Cain killed his brother and then tried to pretend as though he had no idea his brother was dead. Because of the hardness of his heart and unwillingness to repent, Cain’s punishment is fairly severe.
Cain is banished from the only life he’s ever known (just as his parents before him). In his case, this means he will wander the earth as a fugitive for the rest of his life. Scripture portrays the sheer panic Cain displays; “My punishment is greater than I can bear… whoever finds me will slay me!” Gen 4:13-14
So God places a mark on Cain, a mark that clearly communicates “hands off!” to anyone who sees him. It’s an act of mercy and protection from God. We don’t have a lot of specific details about this mark, but reason leads us to some logical conclusions. For instance, in order for the mark to “communicate” a message of “stay away, don’t kill me” to strangers, it must have been someplace on Cain’s body that was both obvious and visible. For this reason, almost every Scripture scholar believes this mark was located directly on Cain’s forehead.
Combine this mark on the sinner’s forehead with the words that were spoken to Adam and Eve after their grave sin: “…you are dust, and to dust you shall return” (Gen 3:19), and you can’t help but think of Ash Wednesday.
The Ash Wednesday Liturgy
This Mass which kick starts Lent brings all of these Biblical instances to mind. As Catholics, we willingly come forward as sinners and receive a mark on our foreheads. This mark symbolizes our banishment from the Lord because of our sin, but it also symbolizes God’s mercy. Because of God’s love for us, even though we are sinners, he does not wish eternal death for us, just as he did not wish physical death for Cain.
Now, because of sin, physical death will come… which is why the priest will often quote that line from Genesis as he makes the sign of the cross with ashes on our foreheads…. However, this reminder of our temporary physical death is important. It reminds us that we have a short time on this earth to make our final decision: to serve God, or to serve ourselves.
This entire liturgical season is full of reminders. We must acknowledge our sinfulness. We must acknowledge our weaknesses and our sorrows. We must acknowledge our need for God’s mercy — our need for his salvation.
Though salvation has been won for us, it is not forced on us. We have to accept God’s grace in our lives and our hearts and allow it to transform us, allow it to be applied to us…
But how do we do this?
Well, this leads us back to that number 40. Before one can enter into a deeper relationship with God and embrace him fully, a person must go through a period of trial and repentance. Like Moses. Like the Israelites. Like Jesus himself.
If we want to live for eternity, we have to become more like Christ.
Lent, this chosen period of trial and repentance is just like Jesus’ forty days in the desert. We fast, we face temptation, we try to rid our souls of the goodness of the world, in order to see that even without those things, goodness still exists… because God is goodness itself.
Our broken, feeble minds forget so easily. The rhythm of the liturgical seasons serves to help every Christian to “re-member” God, to become one with him again, to put us back into a right relationship with him.
Share this with anyone you know who never quite knew how to answer those accusations that Lent has no Scriptural basis. “Happy” Fasting!