I’ll never forget my first Ash Wednesday.
I was a seventh grade student at St. John’s International School in Waterloo, Belgium. We had all gathered in the commons, a priest said a few words, and the next thing I knew it, someone was putting ashes on my forehead. Deep, theological concerns suddenly filled my mind:
What does it mean that I come from dust and I’ll return to dust?
Why have I never done this before?
How long do I have to keep these ashes on my forehead?
Ash Wednesday marks the beginning of the six-week season of Lent, a season in the church calendar which helps us to admit where we’re lost, and that we need help getting back home. Many of us wander through life with a vague sense that something’s not right, that something is spinning out of control. Lent is a time to pause and cry out to the God who is always setting things right again.
Lent is a time to notice how far we’ve wandered from God & where we’ve lost the plot. It’s a time to face our actual sin, and mourn the areas in our lives where we’ve left God. Ruth Haley Barton writes, “The Lenten season often gets reduced to the question, “What are you giving up for Lent?” This is a fine question, but it can only take us so far. The real question of the Lenten season is, “How will I repent and return to God with all my heart?”
I like the picture of a community of people walking around with ashes on our foreheads. For one day, we agree: “We’re messed up. We’re not as put together as we seem to be. We need help.” I like how our outsides and our insides match up on Ash Wednesday.
But I don’t like the “giving something up” part. It’s really hard for me. It always feels like a great idea on Ash Wednesday, but by day four, I’m usually calculating how soon I can quit. This is too legalistic, I think. Or, I picked the wrong thing. I feel certain that God wants me to switch. To giving up broccoli, for instance.
But I typically stay at it because giving something up for Lent helps me get in touch with how hungry I actually am. Fasting or abstaining isn’t meant to help me feel holy (I usually feel cranky and entitled), it’s meant to help me get in touch with God, who meets me in those frustrating and empty and scary places, and feeds me with what I actually need. And that leads to repentance – un-attaching from my sin patterns and returning to God with all my heart.
“Even now,” declares the Lord, “return to me with all your heart, with fasting and weeping and mourning.” – Joel 2:12.
How will you enter into the Lent season? What practices will help you return to God?