I write to you from the first leg of an annual marathon: meat-avoiding, fish-eating, more church services, Bible study, giving something up, taking something on — this can only be Lent.
Our name “Lent” comes from an old English word, “Lenten,” meaning “spring” — and how appropriate. Every year, a chance to spring-clean our souls, work off some spiritual flab and experience life without all our creature comforts.
Lent is hardly light, bright and joy-filled — yet, in this consumer-driven age, its popularity surprises. Just three days ago, churches across the western world were packed, service after service, with countless women and men emerging with dirty faces — there to receive a smudge of ash on their foreheads and to hear those timeless words: “Remember O man that dust thou art, and unto dust shalt thou return (Genesis 3:19).”
In a world where death is avoided at all costs, where dying takes place off-stage and behind sterile curtains, the popularity of this annual mortality reminder also is surprising. Perhaps we long to be reminded that we are just dust — that we are not immortal — but begin and end in something greater than ourselves. And so we are no random accidents, no mere coincidences, but filled with intention and purpose, beauty and love. When we make our way into even an unfamiliar church on Ash Wednesday, we find ways to suffer and celebrate that we have never before experienced.
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And now so many of us — religious, non-religious — continue with some kind of Lenten sacrifice: no more evening martinis, chocolate bars, hamburgers, whatever we use for self-comfort — for the time being, at least. And in this strange place that we put ourselves, we become uniquely equipped to search and reach for meaning. Perhaps you too will feel that sense of hollowness that comes when our pacifiers are removed, and our souls can be heard crying for God.
Sunday, many churches will read one account of Jesus’ own 40 days in the wilderness, wrestling with temptation. Compared to our colorful lives, his struggles are dull — no adultery, nothing salacious. Christ’s temptation was to hide from God’s will — to escape his path of suffering. Our salvation hinged on his lonely struggle.
As I read these passages, I wonder if small battles against our appetites can become ways to hide from bigger questions — matters of personal discernment and honest self-reflection.
Our context is no desert in Israel — but a wilderness, nevertheless. Ash Wednesday, Lent, become magnetic as we drown in our over-scheduled, complicated lives. Despite our virtual connectedness and our busy careers, the reality of isolation and loneliness, the longing for simplicity, for authentic connectedness with each other and with God remain.
These 40 days are not another opportunity for self-loathing, or pointless self-denial. Do not focus on your shortcomings, but instead listen for God’s quiet voice. However you spend the next few weeks, I pray you find the new life and resurrection joy that wait for each one of us, just beyond the end of Lent.