“What are you giving up for Lent?”
This question will be shared around this week for many Christians as they enter into the Lenten season beginning with Ash Wednesday.
People will "give up" anything from soft drinks and swearing to Facebook and chocolate. Emerging from a very spirit-filled Fat Tuesday, Christians will quickly turn to a very somber day of the liturgical year where they will bear gritty ashes in the mark of a cross on their foreheads. Some will fast, some will pray more frequently, some will adopt a daily spiritual practice for this 40-day period just before Easter. And all will embark on a journey to remember those days of Jesus’ preparation before his death and resurrection.
But why do we give up certain things or try new practices during this time? Why the 40 days? Why do we get smeared with ashes and surround ourselves with those morbid and earthy words: “Remember, you are dust and to dust you shall return?” And how can this journey, one that invites us to come face-to-face with the death of Jesus, help us to live out our days as better Jesus-followers?
For early Christians, the pattern for the 40 days of Lent developed out of preparation for the baptism of new converts, intended to strip these new Christians down of their worldly lives and take on a new identity in Jesus. Baptism only took place one day a year, on the day that they commemorated the resurrection of Jesus, Easter. For these early Christian converts, taking up their crosses and following Jesus had a very strong connection with their remembrance of Jesus’ journey to Jerusalem. Just as Jesus prayed, fasted, meditated and faced temptation for 40 days, and just as he took up a life of sacrificial love that led to the cross, so too do these new converts take on a 40 day period of preparation to take on their new life of sacrificial love.
The church grew, and remains with us today, and some of these practices have evolved over time. Many denominations have kept the same pattern, a 40-day period preceding Easter called Lent that leads into a time to remember the death and resurrection, the period we call Holy Week and Easter. But the church now exists as an odd smattering of new and old Christians, some who remain deeply committed to faith and some who may be having some trouble connecting to the faith they once knew. Laurence Hull Stookey, professor of Preaching and Worship at Wesley Theological seminary, identifies three kinds of Christians that exist in the church: the new converts, the baptized members who need renewal in faith, and the “backsliders”[i] who may look to this period for restoration.
And so we have evolved some of our practices, often using Lent as a time of commitment. Traditionally this has been what is behind the question “What are you giving up for Lent?” Or, "What are you going to sacrifice just before we remember the resurrection, the defining moment of Christian faith?"
This practice can be a way for people to see how much of their lives might be focused on a single practice, and how they can use that time differently. Yet recently, there has been a growing movement to counter this practice by making it a positive time of commitment.
What are you going to commit to doing for Lent? What is a practice that will help deepen your faith? It may be as simple as daily Scripture reading or prayer. This way helps people to break out of their routine and re-prioritize for just a bit. By adding something to the mix, we can put other less important matters to the side. These methods still help us remember some of that same ancient pattern. We shed some things for our new life in Jesus. We take some other things on. We prepare ourselves for a small, focused amount of time to be open to the “new possibilities offered to us in Jesus Christ and their implications for practical living.” (Stookey)
Beginning the season of Lent with Ash Wednesday reminds us that this season is all of this and yet, with the ashes and words spoken, it is still more. The first Ash Wednesday service I attended was just last year and I remember I got caught up in how beautiful it was, and yet I walked away haunted. I was in a Roman Catholic church in New York City, in a sanctuary full of homeless people receiving a daily meal. The priests were there to offer ashes to anyone who wanted to come forward.
Like many Baptists, I was just about liturgically naïve as you can get and so I approached the priest with equal amounts of reverence and anxiety. I bowed down on my knees just as I had seen others going before me do and felt the priest press the cold, gritty ash onto my forehead in the shape of the cross. Caught up in the beauty of the moment, his words suddenly rattled me to the core: “Remember that you are dust and to dust you shall return.” How could such a wonderful practice be couched in such a deathly sentence?
These daring and haunting words help us to imagine yet another possibility for Lent. It is the possibility that confronting death might help us to live more fully. Stookey describes Ash Wednesday as a “bold confrontation with death.” We mark ourselves with the ash, ancient dirt from which all life in the cosmos has come from and to which it all returns, in the shape of the cross to remind us that Jesus faced his own death and that we must face our own deaths also.
The ashes haunt us because we realize that we will die one day and there is no way around it. But they also dares us to reflect on how we spend our living days. If Jesus’ cause was the Kingdom of God and yet he was still willing to risk death for it, then we might begin to ask ourselves some different questions for Lent:
Lent can be a time of stripping down and putting on new faith practices that help us focus our life as Christians. But it can also be a time to ask ourselves big questions, to confront death and to live more fully. As Baptist historian Bill Leonard says “...there is still justice to be done and too much good to be accomplished” in life, and not one of us knows the day or the hour when death may come. Ash Wednesday dares us to get started!
May it be so for all of us this Lenten season.
Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons: http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Crossofashes.jpg