In the liturgical calendar, Ash Wednesday marks the beginning of Lent. Lent is a 4o day journey, not including Sundays, which takes us through Christ’s culminating teachings, ministry and work on earth. Lent ends on Holy Saturday, after Jesus’ death on the cross and one day before Jesus defeats our last enemy, death.
When I was a child, growing up in the Roman Catholic Church, Lenten traditions became ingrained in the fabric of my being. The colors, the fasts, the abstaining from meat, the stations of the cross, Palm Sunday (looooonnngest Mass of the year), Holy Thursday and Good Friday. Each had a meaning and each held a purpose and significance in my mind.
Then, as a I entered young adulthood, I left all of those traditions in search of something less symbolic and more tangible. The rituals felt empty at the time and I wanted answers that I imagined only existed behind the fog of incense.
For many years, I attended churches that did not acknowledge any part of the church calendar. There was no Advent, no Lent, no tradition, and seemingly nothing at all (other than the bible) linking the church I was sitting in to the ancient church where it all began.
And while I enjoyed learning in those churches, worship and service began to feel empty. Doesn’t this church realize it stands on the shoulders of all who have gone before? Doesn’t anyone care about the church’s rich history and tradition?
Thankfully, now, I have learned that one doesn’t have to throw the baby out with the bathwater to participate in a church that is rooted in tradition and yet relevant in expression. Serving as a United Methodist Pastor, I have found a church that not only acknowledges our history, but teaches it; and yet still, creates meaningful and relevant applications of ancient teachings.
God is yesterday, today and tomorrow. The beginning and end. The Alpha and Omega. And yes, the time leading up to and capturing Christ’s suffering, death and resurrection is what sets us Christians apart from all other religions and belief systems. Lent gives us place and space, every year, to reflect on our own mortality and to reflect on the Word Incarnate’s journey toward the defeat of death.
What does this mean for us?
In order to understand today and plan for tomorrow, we have to understand yesterday. Part of yesterday for the church, is her traditions that have been passed on from generation to generation.
Since today is Ash Wednesday, I wanted to share some of my morning reflection time with you. I hope you spend some time thinking and praying too.
- Ash Wednesday reminds me that we are all mortal. Yes, one day we will all take our last breath. One day, my body will die. While I do not often like to dwell on the fact that life as I know it will one day come to a close, remembering that all human beings return to dust also reminds me to live every day with purpose and meaning.
- I am reminded that Jesus, too, faced death. And it scared him, just like it scares us. In the garden of Gethsemane, Jesus pleads with God to “take this cup from him if at all possible.” Yet, Jesus ultimately chose to give up his life because it served a greater purpose for humanity. Because of his death and ultimate resurrection, we have the good news of the gospel message to share with all, which includes an invitation for each of us to participate in his ressurection. But still, in order to get there, there was suffering.
- Ash Wednesday also gives me hope, however, in that I know that Jesus has overcome the world. In the Gospel of John, Jesus says these words, “I have said this to you, so that in me you may have peace. In the world you face persecution. But take courage; I have conquered the world!” These words remind me that Christ never promises us a struggle-free or pain-free existence. Rather, our hope is that he has overcome the world and is with us in our struggles. Our hope is that in him we find peace. True peace.
- Today, I am reminded that the world isn’t what it should be, isn’t what God intended it to be. There are wrongs that need righting, there is senseless violence, terror, disease, broken relationships, pollution, decay, and death all around. Everywhere we look, there is pain. This doesn’t sound very hopeful, but it begs me to ask “Why? Why, God? Why?” And in those questions, I hear an answer. The world isn’t what it should be because we often fail to believe and trust God’s purpose of mutual love, harmony and fellowship with all of Creation. Instead, we seek to conquer, to own, to manipulate for gain, and to control.
- I acknowledge my own sin today. I acknowledge my thoughts, words and deeds that are inconsistent with God’s desire of love, harmony and fellowship and ask God to help me turn from everything that fails to honor him. I acknowledge sin in the big sense and I acknowledge it in a smaller sense. How can I be more patient with my kids? How can I allow God the opportunity to prune me this year? How can I strengthen my marriage so that we are more One and less two?
- Today, I think about temptation and how it often presents itself in subtle or even non-threatening ways. Temptation lures us into believing that harmful things that wreck relationships are somehow ok or even right. I am reminded that the little voice in my head is often the voice of truth and that I must silence the distractions of the world in order to hear God more clearly. I pray the words of Psalm 25:5, “Guide me into your truth and teach me. For you are the God who delivers me; on you I rely all day long.”
- I trust in God’s forgiveness and mercy today. I believe that I am worthy of God’s love and that God created me, you, all of us in order to be in relationship with us. I trust that God never gives up on me and is always calling me into a deeper, more intimate relationship with him and my neighbors.
- Today, in a spirit of repentance, I ask what God requires of me. The words of the prophet Micah come to mind. “He has told you, O mortal, what is good; and what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?”
- Finally, I promise to give God special time during this season of Lent. I promise to hole up in my closet or another quiet space every day, even if just for five minutes. I promise to be still, to listen, to hear and to believe. I commit to wanting to become the person God intends me to be and ask for God’s help and wisdom in getting there.
But what about you? What are your plans for Ash Wednesday? How will you embrace the Lenten season this year?
I pray that you find some time today, on Ash Wednesday, to reflect, to learn and to pray. I hope you will consider finding a local church to attend today. It is one of the most moving services of the year; a service of worship that ushers in a 40+ day rhythm of repentance and reflection. If you are not quite ready to walk into a church, there are many locations around the world where clergy will be participating in “Ashes to Go.”
However you choose to participate, I pray that God reaches you exactly where you are, and draws you closer to love, grace, forgiveness, and mercy.
And as we say while imposing ashes on the foreheads of men, women, and children, while looking into oft tear-filled eyes, “Repent and believe in the gospel.” Or, as I like to say, “Turn away from all that stands between you and God and trust in his love and good will for you and for all.” And to children, “God loves you and wants to be loved back by you.”
In short, God loves you and wants the best for you. Do you believe that?
“Lent comes providentially to reawaken us, to shake us from our lethargy.” — Pope Francis