This day, Ash Wednesday, marks the beginning of the Lenten season, which lasts for about seven weeks until Good Friday. In Christian tradition, Lent is a time of reflection, of repentance, and fasting. It is a time to reflect on the suffering and death of Jesus Christ – and we begin this season with acknowledging that we have to die. Later on, we will hear the ominous words, ‘Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.’
That’s heavy stuff. And, in our day and age and the society we live in, everything that defines Lent is also highly counter-cultural.
Reflection? I rather pick my opinion and stick with it, come what may.
Repentance? Why would I want to change my heart and mind and seek new ways?
Fasting? Why would I want to deny myself anything I desire and feel entitled to?
Suffering? Death? Who in their right mind would think about that unless they have to?
Lent just doesn’t have much of a place in the culture we live in. We celebrate and admire eternal youth – and there is a large industry out there that profits from our desire to look and feel young as long as possible. We propagate boundless and reckless individual freedom without responsibility – which, of course, always comes at the expense of someone else. We live in a society which worships the golden bull of the economy and where constant and often mindless consumption of goods is prized above almost anything else.
It is no surprise that there are even churches and entire church bodies in this country that don’t observe Lent. Let’s skip the cross and all it stands for – suffering, self-denial, ultimate sacrifice, and death – and go right to the resurrection and glory of our Lord, in which we get to bask as well. Let’s accept God’s gift of grace – without handling it with care and responsibility.
This past year has been tough. 11 months ago – interestingly smack in the middle of the season of Lent – we had to stop in our tracks. The spread of the COVID-19 pandemic forced us onto new ways, a journey we rather would have avoided. A journey that forced us to give up many things we hold dear. A journey that made us pay closer attention to the needs of our neighbors – especially the most vulnerable ones. A journey on which we’ve encountered so much suffering, so much death, so much grief.
In a sense, to me the past 11 months have felt like an extremely extended Lenten journey. And, let me tell you, I’m tired of it. I am longing for the big Easter moment, the liberation from gloom and doom, and being on high alert all the time. But I know we have to hang in there for a while longer. Yes, there is hope because of the various vaccines that have been developed and are now distributed, little by little – but even the vaccine is not a silver bullet. Even with the vaccine, we still can catch and pass on the virus. For a while, we still need to be especially mindful of our neighbors’ vulnerability.
I am not surprised that, in a culture that doesn’t have a wide-spread awareness of Lent and its practices, many have chosen to ignore the dangers of the Corona Virus. Or deny them. Or downplay them. It saddens me deeply – it even makes me angry, especially when someone mocks me, or mistakes my concern for my neighbor for fear, or even attacks me for being cautious, wearing a mask, and keeping my distance – but it doesn’t surprise me.
If self-fulfillment at all cost is the highest ideal, any inkling of self-denial out of concern for someone else of course is seen as weak, ridiculous, or even deplorable.
However, in the end denial is futile. People are suffering, People are dying. We are confronted with our own vulnerability and mortality. We are confronted with our shortcomings – as individuals and as a society.
The season of Lent may be seen as a drag by many, or as an inconsequential relic of a dark and religiously fanatic past. But Lent invites us to be honest: honest with ourselves. Honest about the need to reflect on our ways – again, as individuals and as society. Honest about the need to change our minds, change our hearts, change our ways – because if we continue in our selfish, self-righteous, and all-consuming ways, we all will go to hell in a handbasket. Honest about the mortality of the people we love, honest about our own mortality – nobody will make it out of here alive.
Honesty, of course, is not easy. It is painful. But: no pain, no gain, we say. Without pain, we don’t see the need to change our ways, and we can’t grow. And if you think God doesn’t want us to grow, just read through many of the parables of Jesus – he uses the metaphor of growth all the time.
So I want to invite you right now to take the first step on this year’s Lenten journey. To have open eyes, open ears, an open mind and an open heart to take in what you encounter on this journey. To be honest. To pay attention to the pain you might feel. To pay attention where and how you encounter Christ on this journey, and where and how he walks with you.
The journey takes you, the journey takes me, the journey takes us to the cross. But if the cross was our ultimate destination, life would be very gloomy and depressing indeed. The journey will continue – beyond the cross to the empty tomb. There is no cross without it. However, there also is no empty tomb without the cross. There is no new life without pain and death.
And along this entire journey, God promises us: I am there for you. In life and death, I am with you. Fear not. I have redeemed you. I have called you by name. You are mine.
The ashen cross we will reflect on and even maybe impose on ourselves or someone who is with us in a moment is very closely related to the cross we were signed with the day we were baptized. It is a reminder that, no matter what, we are God’s. We are born, we live, we die – we are God’s. And Christ is with us on this entire journey, helping us, encouraging us, comforting us when things get a little rough or difficult as we are on the way. Thanks be to God for that.
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