Happy Lent

Last night, the anchor on our local news said that many Christians around the world were celebrating Ash Wednesday. It struck me as an odd choice of words. Do we really “celebrate” Ash Wednesday? It’s a day of repentance – a day to remember that we were created from dust and to dust we will return – a day to be humble. Ash Wednesday kicks off the liturgical season of Lent, which is 40 days (plus Sundays) that Christians observe to prepare for Easter through prayer, penance, repentance, almsgiving, and self-denial.

Sounds like a party to me!

“Don’t need nothin’ – but Contrition”
(sung to the tune of the Poison song, Nothin’ but a Good Time.)

Many Christians traditionally give something up for Lent; like carbonated beverages, chocolate, or desserts. Others add something to their routine; like an additional bible study, devotional, or prayer. Some attend special Ash Wednesday services where they may participate in a ritual of receiving the mark of ashes on their foreheads as a sign of repentance and mourning. All of this is an effort to get their hearts and minds focused on the upcoming Holy Day of Easter, or the celebration of the resurrection of Christ. (THAT I can understand referring to as a celebration!)

Here’s the thing though: All of this is great, as long as you remember that it’s a human device – a ritual designed and perpetuated by imperfect people. In the end, God isn’t going to ask if you observed Lent properly, or call you out on eating a Reece’s Peanut Butter Cup after giving up chocolate for 40 days. That isn’t what’s important to Him.

What He ultimately wants from us is exactly what He has always wanted: for us to love Him with all of our hearts, minds, and souls – and to love our neighbors as ourselves.

And if observing Lent or Ash Wednesday in whatever way we think is necessary helps us to do that – then that’s exactly what we should do.

I went to Ash Wednesday service last night, received the mark of ashes, and prayed a little extra. I am doing a couple of extra devotionals for the time being. I will be reading and writing more intentionally for spiritual reasons. I might even deny myself something that I really like. And I encourage you to do those kinds of things too. But I mostly encourage you to (as they say around Christmas) remember the reason for the season.

Prayer for the beginning of Lent:

Lord, help us to use whatever rituals and devices that we choose to do nothing more than strengthen our commitment to you, our families, our churches, our communities, and our world. Help us to love you more, and to learn how to love your people.

Amen.

remember that thou art dust

I suppose many people – especially non-Catholics – have conflicting concepts about what Ash Wednesday is or why we – especially Protestants such as me – would celebrate it. I have done my share of struggling with it in the past too. It is not the most welcoming of holy days. Let’s smear some ashes on our foreheads to remind us of our mortality and our sinful natures. Uh… how about we don’t.

I do not need to be reminded that I am a sinner – that we are all sinners. And as I get older I certainly do not need to be reminded that I am going to eventually die.

Or do I?

The tradition of Ash Wednesday is derived from the biblical practice of using dust and ashes to symbolically express remorse for sins and as an outward sign of repentance. (See Job 42:3-6, or Daniel 9:3). Plus we get the added bonus of being reminded of our impending death, “Remember that thou art dust, and to dust thou shalt return” (Genesis 3:19).

For many years I only thought of Ash Wednesday as the first day of Lent. Lent is the 40 days (not counting Sundays) that lead up to that most holy of holy days on the Christian calendar, Easter Sunday. This is the time that we are traditionally asked to give something up – to fast from something specific as an act of penance. Often times in today’s society people try to give up something that they perceive as a vice; like coffee, chocolate, fried foods, or red meat because they see it as a way to eliminate a barrier between themselves and God.

Personally I find it more edifying to take something on rather than give something up. In the last few years during Lent I have attempted to take on more study, prayer, acts of kindness, etc. And this year is no exception. This year I plan to participate in our Conference’s Lenten devotional series every morning, as well as read more scripture especially at night. I am also going to try to pray more and blog at least weekly about my Lenten journey or something else of a spiritual nature. And finally my wife and I plan on taking care of our temples during this time by walking for more exercise at least three days a week. Sounds simple enough, right?

Actually – as I read through this list I am thinking, “I should be doing these things all of the time – not just during Lent”. And I guess personally I hope that forty days is enough to make some of these things more of a habit.

So as we “celebrate” Ash Wednesday to kick off this season of repentance and self-denial in preparation for Holy Week, my prayer is that through it all we all learn to walk closer with God, to remove the things that stand in between Him and us, and to experience His amazing grace.

Like the words of the praise chorus, Lord prepare me to be a sanctuary – Pure and Holy – Tried and True…