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Wednesday, February 13, 2013

Lent begins: Sackcloth gone, ashes remain

(Public Domain Photo)
Ash Wednesday, a moveable feast that can occur anytime from February 4th through March 10th, marks the beginning of Lent.

Lent in turn marks Christianity's "40-day liturgical period of prayer and fasting."  Wikipedia explains that this period symbolizes the 40 days Jesus spent fasting in the desert.  As the name implies, Ash Wednesday includes "the practice of placing ashes on the foreheads of adherents."  During ancient times, ashes were used to express "sorrow for sins and faults."  The prophet Jeremiah (6:26), in calling for repentance, cried out:  O daughter of my people, gird on sackcloth, roll in the ashes.

Sackcloth and ashes have long been associated with one another.  The Jewish Encyclopedia describes
"sackcloth" (Hebrew: sak) as "a coarsely woven fabric, usually made of goat's hair."  It was "chiefly worn as a token of mourning by the Israelites," but was also considered a sign of submission.  Prophets, too, sometimes wore it.  Some theorize (without conclusive evidence) that it was "shaped like a corn-bag with an opening for the head" – others believe that it "originally was simply the loin-cloth."

In any case, few to none don sackcloth these days in honor of Ash Wednesday.  Ashes remain the predominant symbol of penitence.  The Jewish Encyclopedia explains that the Hebrew word efer is often translated as "ashes," but could also mean "dust."  As "dust," efer can refer to "insignificance or nothingness…"  This is associated with humility in Isaiah and Micah, and with mourning in Job. 

Daniel 9:3 tells us that the prophet "turned to the Lord God, pleading in earnest prayer, with fasting, sackcloth and ashes."   It is heartening to know - after all this time – that two out of three of these sacred practices still popularly reflect the essence of Lent.


Copyright February 13, 2013 by Linda Van Slyke   All Rights Reserved

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