When I was a sophomore in college, I remember walking to an Episcopal church a couple of miles away from my dorm to be with the church for Ash Wednesday. I remember so clearly because I was recovering from mono and that 30 minute walk took probably an hour – but I was determined.
Because, even then, in my very traditional, religious understanding of Lent, I thought it was something I should do. I thought it was important to be there and to do that. It was an obligation, as I understood it at the time.
Time passed, I grew to understand the day, and the season of Lent itself, to include much more than a ritual. In my relationship with Jesus, and other people who love and follow him, these became a way to follow him, to mimic actions he did, to apply his way to my life – to “take up [my] cross and follow [him].”
Ash Wednesday is a day upon which many Christians around the world remember their mortality, which, according to the bible, is a result of the entry of sin into the world. In Genesis, it is also written that God created Adam from the dust of the ground. Ash Wednesday is marked by the placing of a smudge of ash on the forehead with the words, “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.” A symbolic reminder that our very existence is marked by the constant need for the forgiveness the cross of Christ alone provides.
The act of ashes alone does nothing. It doesn’t get you an inch closer to heaven. However, the intentional realization that today is but one 24 hour part of my mortal life and the physical reality of the result of sin, my need for forgiveness, and spiritual contemplation of this fact is inseparable from my eternity, does.
This holy contemplation of mortality is the kick-off of a 40-day period of paying particular attention to the spiritual practices of prayer, fasting, and bible reading. As the words of the Ash Wednesday liturgy say it, Lent is a call to “self-examination and repentance; by prayer, fasting, and self-denial; and by reading and meditating on God’s holy Word.”
In essence, it is an invitation to simplify; to get back to – or into – the basic practices that help us to grow as followers of Jesus. This can look different for different people, especially the fasting part, which has become something frivolous for many people. A fast doesn’t need to equal starvation, though fasting can certainly take the form of limiting the consumption of food. In choosing a fast, it’s important to choose to fast from something that makes room for more Jesus in your life, something that may distract you from him. Therefore, choosing to forego chocolate may seem like a good idea for one, but if a person doesn’t eat sweets much, it doesn’t really fit the discipline of a meaningful fast, right? Likewise, it should be about making spiritual room, not only bettering yourself (like losing 10 pounds by Easter). Choose something meaningful, and even something that seems difficult, but something which, in practice, will keep your mind on Jesus’ sacrifice of himself to reconcile you, very personally, to God.
This period of focus on spiritual disciplines has always been a meaningful and helpful season for me, even more so as I grew from checking the religious obligation boxes to the pursuit of a vibrant, growing faith. I typically take up a study or practice for these 7 weeks – last year I was reading through the whole bible in a year, so I focused on a fast that touched every meal by fasting from starches to make me mindful of God’s provision for us in Jesus. [Note: last Lent was before I changed my diet for health reasons, but was ultimately an encouragement to do so. It’s been life-changing in many lasting ways.]
This year, I am studying something. More about that later.
Will you join me in this new kind of old Lenten journey? Share your stories, practices, and hopes in the comments.
Maybe you’re unfamiliar with the idea of Lent. Ask your questions! I’ll do my best to answer in future posts.