Today is Ash Wednesday. This is the official beginning of Lent. Many of us will attend a worship service today where someone will smear black ashes mixed with oil on our forehead and say, “Remember that from dust you came and to dust you will return.”
What is this all about? There are many lenses through which we can look at Lent. This year, in our congregation, the lens of The Lenten Journey is especially appropriate. Our theme this year is “Finding Our Way” as we have an intentional interim lead pastor who is helping us transition from a beloved lead pastor who resigned last year into a new era.
Here are some thoughts about Lent that you might find helpful to begin your journey:
- The word Lent simply means “spring” and comes from the ancient Anglo-Saxon language.
- As early as the fourth century, the church took the 40 days leading up to Easter as a time to fast and pray for repentance and spiritual renewal. The 40 days represent both Jesus’ 40-day fast and Moses’ 40-day encounter with God on Mt. Sinai.
- The ashes used on Ash Wednesday represent two things. First, they mimic the ancient practice of covering oneself with sackcloth and ashes as a sign of grief and repentance. Secondly, they also represent a cleansing agent that symbolizes baptism and the cleansing power of the Holy Spirit. We place them on the forehead to remember that we came from ashes and will return to ashes and that our lives are sealed, not in our own merit or strength, but by the grace and love of God.
The Lenten Journey has two facets. It is an inner journey and it is an outer journey.
The inner journey takes us deep within the clutter of our own hearts and guides us through a spring cleaning of the soul. I understand why this is a Spring ritual after having lived through my fourth winter in Minnesota. It is much like my garage at home. All winter it is so cold in my garage that I hate going out there. So, instead of cleaning it up each week like I often do during the summer, I tend to just throw things out there and get back inside as quickly as possible. Now, at the end of an extra wintery season, I cringe every time I pull into my garage. It is a mess. I can’t wait for warm weather when I can take the time to methodically go through the clutter, throw out the junk, and organize the essentials.
That is what Lent is designed to do for our soul. Let’s face it; we’ve been partying since October. We get cranked up on candy for All Hallow’s Eve, and then we do Thanksgiving, Christmas, New Year’s, and Valentines Day. We are cold and flabby, and it is time to clean house. It is time to stop the craziness of a hectic life and the addiction to material things that drives us and lulls us into complacency. It is time to repent, to change our way of thinking, to be quiet and listen to what God wants to say to us.
The only way that we can listen to God is if we do something radical, change our natural cycles, slow down, and pay attention. The way to do this is to fast. Fasting is the discipline of denying oneself of something good for the purpose of focusing on something even better – God’s Spirit and the gentle promptings that only come in silence.
Repentance, Fasting, Cleansing, recalibrating, revisioning. These are the aspects of Lent that lead us up to the Big Three — the death, burial, and resurrection of Jesus. Having gone through the cleansing fire of fasting we reconnect to the cleansing water of baptism and we rise on Easter morning refreshed and renewed in the power and purpose of God’s Kingdom.
That is our inner journey. There is an inherent problem with this process, however. This problem is highlighted throughout scripture, but is painfully accentuated in Isaiah 58. The nation of Israel had fallen into the trap of ritualism. They went through the motions of fasting, but they were neglecting the purpose of the practice. The same was true in Jesus’ day. The people who practiced the ritual fast, which included putting ashes on the body, were more interested in looking like they were holy and fasting so that people would think they were spiritual than they were concerned about actually being transformed by God.
Look what Isaiah says to Judah regarding the purpose of the fast: Isaiah 58:6–9 (NRSV)
Is not this the fast that I choose:
to loose the bonds of injustice,
to undo the thongs of the yoke,
to let the oppressed go free,
and to break every yoke?
Is it not to share your bread with the hungry,
and bring the homeless poor into your house;
when you see the naked, to cover them,
and not to hide yourself from your own kin?
Then your light shall break forth like the dawn,
and your healing shall spring up quickly;
your vindicator shall go before you,
the glory of the Lord shall be your rear guard.
Then you shall call, and the Lord will answer;
you shall cry for help, and he will say, Here I am.
This is why Lent is also an outer journey. The Kingdom of God is not exclusively about our personal relationship with God. In fact, it is impossible to have a vital relationship with God, to know God’s love, without expressing God’s love to the world. The Kingdom of God is for the world, today. Jesus came to heal the sick, feed the hungry, clothe the naked, emancipate the imprisoned. Literally.
The interaction between our inner journey and outer journey is inseparable. If we want to hunger and thirst for God’s righteousness, then we must interface with those in our world who literally hunger and thirst for food and water. We must realize the injustice of this inequity and do something to alleviate it. When we do this, when we step outside of ourselves and seek the good of the other, then will we be truly fasting from our self indulgence and be able to hear the still small voice of God, perhaps spoken through the mouth of a starving child.
Some of us are better at the inner journey. We live inside our own head most of the time. For us, God calls us to stretch into the outer journey. For some of us we focus on the outer journey and stay distracted with “good works” so that we don’t have to sit down alone with God. For us, God says, “sit still and let’s clean up your garage for a while.”
(most of this post is a repost from 2011)