Today is Ash Wednesday, the beginning of the 40 days (excluding Sundays) that precede Easter. 40 days is an excellent period in which to prepare for the resurrection of the Lord Jesus. Jesus took 40 days in the wilderness to fast, to fight the devil and to prepare for his ministry. And the journey begins with ash, or dust, if you will. We contemplate death, Christ's and our own. We remember that we are but dust and to the dust we shall one day return. Death is a hard topic and yet if we don't ponder death, we can't then appreciate life, especially the resurrected life that comes to us on Easter. But let's not get ahead of ourselves. The season of Lent is intended to settle us down on the pathway of contemplation, conviction, and confession. Here we meet our dark selves which is hard to do, but made possible by the light of Christ that redeems us. However, there is no redemption without conviction. No freedom from sin without confession of sin.
Lent is a good time to do something different, something challenging, something that requires discipline. Many traditions call for people to give up something, a favorite food or an enjoyable hobby as a reminder of all that Christ has given up for us. The season of Lent is also known as a season of fasting. In fact, Lent in Swedish is called fastnings tid: Fasting time. So people give up something, or they fast from something in order to more intentionally walk through the season.
I read something quite interesting on this topic the other day. It was a challenge to give up some thing more significant than candy or coffee. It spoke of giving up anger or impatience. It challenged believers to think about giving up un-Christlike behavior, yelling at one's kids, or treating one's spouse with disrespect. It was a fresh way of looking at the discipline of fasting throughout the Lenten season.
As for me, well...I am doing a few different things. As I have considered how I'd like to shape my Lenten journey this year, I was reminded of how poorly I am doing at my New Year's Resolution. In fact, I'm flat out failing at it. So, for one thing, I'm renewing my New Year's Resolution for Lent and hoping that the season itself will give me energy and confidence to accomplish the goal I set out to achieve in 2009. There are two books that I will enjoy throughout the season. One is a daily reader entitled Reliving the Passion by Walter Wangerin Jr. Compelling and challenging, it fleshes out the Passion of Christ in remarkable and surprising ways. His companion texts are Mark 14 and 15. He recommends reading those two chapters in one sitting beginning the journey through his book. The second book is written by an author I heard at a conference a few years back, a young woman named Lauren Winter. I was so taken by her speaking style that I actually felt like I developed a little crush on her while listening to her speak and then proceeded to go out and buy all of her books. All 3 of them. One is entitled Mudhouse Sabbath and it relates how she took the practices of her Orthodox Jewish background and began to graft them into her new Christian way of life. It is enriching and nourishing and I look forward to digging into that again. Finally, I am giving up something that I truly enjoy because I think the discipline is good and I think it's good to self-deprive sometimes. I rarely have to make super hard choices about doing something I love, or eating something I enjoy, or going somewhere wonderful, so I think during Lent it's good for me to self-impose some limits on myself. This year I am going to allow Sundays to be a day of rest for me so will allow for a Sabbath indulgence if appropriate.
At the end of the day, however, Lent is not at all about what we do. It's totally about what God is doing. Anything that you practice during Lent should be done with an eye toward becoming more aware of God. I love building some disciplines and practices into my life during Lent because I want this time of year to be different from all other times of year. I want to be consciously aware of the road that we are on as we journey toward the death and resurrection of Christ. I don't want Easter to sneak up on me, but rather, I want to be fully aware of how long we have until Good Friday. I want to feel a little pain during Lent and be intentional about what's happening to me spiritually during this season as well. My little rituals help me do that. They don't make me a better person but they do make me aware of the ways in which, perhaps, God wants to make me a better person. And so I wish you well on your Lenten journey even as I embark upon mine.
I close today with a prayer for Lent from Henri Nouwen, another one of my favorite authors.
"How often have I lived through these weeks without paying much attention to penance, fasting, and prayer? How often have I missed the spiritual fruits of the season without even being aware of it? But how can I ever really celebrate Easter without observing Lent? How can I rejoice fully in your Resurrection when I have avoided participating in your death?
Yes, Lord, I have to die—with you, through you, and in you—and thus become ready to recognize you when you appear to me in your Resurrection. There is so much in me that needs to die: false attachments, greed and anger, impatience and stinginess.... I see clearly now how little I have died with you, really gone your way and been faithful to it. O Lord, make this Lenten season different from the other ones. Let me find you again. Amen."