“From that time on he began to preach, ‘Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.'” (Matthew 4:17, NIV). Repentance is something we read much about in both Old and New Testaments. It’s also one of Jesus’ frequent sermon topics.
Today, many Christians observe Ash Wednesday as the beginning of Lent, a period of 40 days chosen by Christians well over a thousand years ago to mirror the 40-day period of Jesus’ prayer and fasting as he was tempted by Satan. Ashes are placed on the foreheads of believers in the sign of the cross as a symbol of repentance. Ashes (particularly sackcloth and ashes) are often referred to in scripture regarding grief, sin, and repentance. Jesus refers to repenting in sackcloth and ashes in Luke 10:13.
In addition to repentance, the Lenten Season is a time of reading scripture, fasting, prayer, self-examination, self-denial, and Christian discipline in preparation for Easter. While Lent isn’t instituted in scripture as a time of observance, all of the things included in Lent are repeatedly emphasized by Jesus and New Testament writers as practices in which Christians should constantly engage — practices pointing us to the death and resurrection of Jesus and our salvation.
Today, the person administering the ashes may say, “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.” (Genesis 3:19) A reminder of our own mortality is meaningful during a time of repentance. It enhances the likelihood that we will experience a time of humility. Whether or not one observes Lent, it’s important to set aside specific times when you experience a penitent heart.
“‘Even now,’ declares the Lord, ‘return to me with all your heart, with fasting and weeping and mourning. Rend your heart and not your garments.'” (Joel 2:12-13) “Humble yourselves…under God’s mighty hand that he may lift you up…” (I Peter 5:6)