"Do Ash Wednesday and Lent have to be such downers?" I hear this question - and others like it - every year. More accurately, I hear statements such as, "I don't participate in Lent; it's a downer, it's too hard, I never make it through with my commitments. Why try?" As you might have guessed, I'm a big supporter of Ash Wednesday and Lent and I'm going to tell you why. Maybe, if you're like those who are shy about the season, you'll find a new perspective that will feel more invitational.
Yes, it can be a bit stark to walk into a sanctuary to see black, gray, and purple cloths on Ash Wednesday. Usually the bright decorations that have been lingering since Christmas have been put away and everyting feels a bit bare. That's all true. Ash Wednesday is stark, but I find that this emptying out of the sanctuary helps remind me that it's time to empty out the spiritual garbage that I've been collecting for the past year. I have to ask myself what baubles, decorations, and clutter have I been hanging onto and whether I need them. Do they actually contribute to the quality of my life? Often times I find on Ash Wednesday that I've slipped back into emotional and spiritual patterns that aren't healthy or helpful. The starkness of the room helps me examine the cluttered and rushed areas of my life.
The words "Remember, you come from dust and to dust you shall return" can really frighten some people. What are Christians trying to do? Scare the crap out of me? Well, some might be but I'm not. These words remind me that, like the rest of creation, I have been lovingly made by God. I am a part of a great web of creation. I am connected to all of life, all of the dust in the solar system, all of the dust bunnies with which I am at war most of the time. I am part of something much, much larger than myself. I have a place - humans have a place - in this order of creation. We are a special part of God's holy and sacred creation. And yet I am not the crowning achievement of God's handiwork. I have a place, one out of which I often step. I move through the world as though I were in charge, in control - God. The words we say on Ash Wednesday remind me that I am not the Creator. They humble me. I am only on this earth for a short period of time. How can I be more alive in Christ? How can I live more fully aware of God's grace at work in the world and in me? One day I will leave this place, what experiences do I need to have, what effects do I want to leave behind? These words call me to account for how I live while I am here.
Ash Wednesday is the kick off day of Lent. The symbols can be a bit stark, but they invite us in to a sizing down of the overstuffed, overpacked, overcrowded ways in which most Americans live. Lent is a journey into the heart of God. What is so bad about that? Of course, it does lift up to us the reality that in following the God of Jesus, like him we may face trials and tribulations because of our commitment to God's realm. To follow Jesus is to follow his program of kingdom proclamation and kingdom building. We are, after all, proclaiming that God is the ruler of this world not the powers and principalities all around us that exert themselves with great might. We stand in opposition to oppression, injustice, and apathy. We are called to level the plane, extend compassion to the outcast, and rejoice with sinners (that's good because I am one). This way of living is often counter to the ways in which this world would want us to live. This way of living clearly and unashamedly declares that the world and all that is in it belongs to God and to no other - not to me or to you, not to corporations, and not to the state. To follow Jesus is highly political and overtly challenging of the norms of our world. So, it is dangerous. Lent reminds us just how dangerous. It also, however, invites us into the heart of the God of joy, peace, and laughter. The same God that created still creates. This God wants us to celebrate every time we gather as though we were at a wedding. This God wants us to drink deeply of life and love with abandon. Lent invites us on to this path as well.
Ash Wednesday and Lent are not downers, but they are an invitation to right our relationships, especially our relationship with God, remembering that we belong to God (God does not belong to us). They call us into lives of humility. They send us down dangerous paths on behalf of the kingdom. And they also pull us into the great party that always seems to be happening in the midst of this kingdom.
I hope that you walk into Lent ready to examine your life with honesty and integrity, to make changes that you need to make, and to remember that you are a beloved child of God who - whether you know it or not - is basking in the delight of God's grace.
For more about the tradition of Ash Wednesday, go my my post from last year.
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