This Wednesday, February 14th, in addition to being Valentine’s Day, is Ash Wednesday. This day marks the beginning of the Lenten Season – a period of 40 days, plus 7 Sundays that ends with Easter. The 40 days are modeled after Jesus’ 40 days of temptation in the wilderness (see Mark 1:12-13). The 7 Sundays are intended to be 7 “little Easters” along the way – a respite of worship and celebration in the midst of our otherwise sober companionship of Jesus through his 40 day trial.
I did not grow up in a Christian tradition that emphasized Ash Wednesday or Lent in any fashion. My first exposure to this season of the church year was during my seminary days as I served on the staff of a congregation that did observe the liturgical, or church, year. I only attended my first Ash Wednesday service as a 35+ year old adult, and I’ve only led a very few Ash Wednesday services as a pastor. (Being Baptist we often exert our “freedoms” when it comes to all things liturgical!)
Still, I find this day, and this season, to be increasingly important and significant in my faith – and I hope you might as well (no matter your faith heritage).So, this year, while the culture around us will enjoy and find all manner of reason to worry about Valentine’s Day and getting your sweetheart the right bauble or card; others who follow Christ (and some who celebrate both V-day and Ash W.) will remember the ancient words: “Remember that you are dust and to dust you shall return.”
Now that is sobering, isn’t it? No one likes to think about his or her mortality, but the Lenten season, and more specifically our walk with Jesus through it, invites this memory. Why? In preparation for Easter is the simple answer. We are going to, once again, celebrate the resurrection of Jesus in 7 weeks. It will be a glorious festival day of worship and feasting and proclamation. But you cannot have Easter without Good Friday or Maundy Thursday, or all the days, weeks, and years of Jesus’ ministry before. Lent is our opportunity to reboot and hear Jesus’ words and observe his willing sacrifice in preparation for Resurrection Sunday.
This brings to mind the Lenten tradition of “giving something up”. Again, if your tradition is unfamiliar with this spiritual practice, or you were raised to be suspicious of those traditions who seemed to rather routinely practice giving up certain foods during Lent, you may think this is silly. But what if you were to “give up” something of your choosing in order to more incline your thinking toward Christ and what he gave up for you?
More modern Lenten fasts have included the suggestion to “give up” things that consume our attention and minds in more harmful ways than chocolate or caffeine. Why not “give up” a form of social media that eats up your time each day? Why not “give up” watching your favorite news channel or program – especially if it is a source in this day of political division of anxiety in your life? Why not “give up” criticism? Complaining? Gossip? What might you give up, as a reminder of Jesus’ sacrifice?
Allow me to make another suggestion while we are thinking about this “giving up” of things. When a person is trying to overcome an addiction, a much more helpful behavior than just trying to “win” the battle over that addiction by personal fortitude or moral strength, is to substitute another, positive behavior for the negative. So, you might think not only of what you will “give up” for Lent, but what you will “take on”. What might fill the space of that which you’ve given up?
Take on prayer. Take on reading Scripture or a Lenten devotional book. Take on volunteering with your church or a community organization. Take on praise, complimenting others, giving thanks, writing a note of appreciation. What will you “take on”?
On Ash Wednesday as we reconnect with our mortality (Remember that you are dust and to dust you will return), we are also preparing to live into and celebrate our immortality through Christ. When we are “in Christ” death does not win the victory. Ash Wednesday, and the season of Lent, are good reminders that we live, struggle and too often succumb to the sinful broken world of our origin. We cannot overcome this reality, but thanks be to God, through Jesus, we do not have to do it ourselves. Jesus overcame sin and death on our behalf. Lent gives us the intentional opportunity to reflect on that gift of grace and thus be ready to celebrate Easter.
May your walk with Jesus through these 40 days bring you blessing.