Last year on Ash Wednesday, I was standing in line at the grocery store when the sales clerk whispered, “Did you know you have a big ink spot on your forehead?
I shook my head. “It’s not ink; it’s ashes.” When she looked at me quizzically, I continued, “You know, for Ash Wednesday?”
Apparently she didn’t know. I set my groceries down. “Lent’s the forty days before Easter. The Catholic Church sets it aside as a season of self-denial and sacrifice that begins today. The ashes came with the words, “Remember you are dust and to dust you shall return.” So they remind us that we’re finite.”
“Oh,” she mumbled, focusing on her bar code reader and my groceries. Perhaps my explanation was more than she could handle.
I wanted to tell her that I’d rather remember a root canal or that I needed allergy shots than remember I’m dust. It’s a sobering, humiliating thought. I remember again how mortal I am. Not that I can’t think about how short life is at any other time. It’s just that mostly, I’m too busy and don’t.
If humiliation is so uncomfortable, why does the church keep reminding us of it?
My guess is, God gives us humiliation as a reality check. I, like many people, tend to take life for granted, especially the fact that we even have life. And I expect things to go my way. I want to be in charge. I want power and prestige and plenty of money. I don’t want to admit I need God. But the smudge says, “Hey, wake up. Tomorrow, or even this afternoon, you could be just like these ashes, black and lifeless. Perhaps you should reevaluate how you are living so what you do is more in line with who God calls you to be (namely, a child of God.)”
To me, Lent is about the First Commandment (Exodus 20:2). “I am Yahweh your God who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery. You shall have no gods except me.” Lent helps root out the false gods. Not statues or idols, of course. I’m talking about current day false gods – things we are overly attached to, things that take the place of God such as: addictive substances, activities on which we over-focus, parts of life that squeeze out God.
My kids had a keychain that said WWJD (What Would Jesus Do). Well, given the choice of rejecting his mission or suffering to save us, Jesus chose to suffer and die. So, that’s what he would do. I’d rather not. Suffering isn’t my favorite. Yet, during Lent, the Church invites me to dabble in it, and try some self-denial, mini-suffering or self-improvement, to deepen my commitment or refocus on God. Lent allows me to consider the places where I’m giving over-indulging on the wrong things. Lent gives me time to repent, practice self-denial, and refocus my life on what really matters.
Forty days of self-denial in our America’s culture isn’t easy. When I was a kid, for instance, I didn’t understand Lent at all. I gave up candy for 40 days, but saved it in my top dresser drawer to eat on Easter Saturday. A few years back someone made a movie about a guy who had a difficult time giving up sex for Lent. We have so many comforts, conveniences, and habits that our society tells us they are vital for life.
The Bible says something different. In 2 Corinthians 7:10-11 we read, “To suffer in God’s way means changing for the better and leaves no regrets, but to suffer as the world knows suffering brings death. Just look at the fruit of this suffering which stems from God. What a measure of holy zeal it has brought you, not to speak of readiness to defend yourselves! What indignation, fear and longing! What ardent desire to restore the balance of justice!”
Lenten sacrifice can be enlightening and edifying. For instance, one Lent our family decided to give up TV. We struggled at first. Yet over the six weeks we did more reading, talking, exercise, hobbies, and games than before. We grew closer to each other. More importantly, we had more time to evaluate how to love one another more deeply, how to find Christ in one another, and how to let go of our selfish desires.
By entering into Christ’s suffering even a little through self-sacrifice, we can develop the traits listed by Paul to the Corinthians: holy zeal, readiness to defend, indignation, fear, and longing for balance and justice. Suffering can change us for the better! And a good Lenten season helps us to better celebrate Jesus’ resurrection on Easter. Which is, of course, the whole point.
“Remember, you are dust and to dust you shall return.”
Lenten sacrifice cleanses and renews the spirit no matter what faith you practice. Some things you can do to start:
- Identify one excessive habit to which you feel overly connected, or some character flaw that irritates or disrupts relationships with others and/or God.
- Firmly decide to set aside that habit or irritation from now until Easter.
- Practice every day. If you slip, just come back to it.
- Pray daily for the strength to continue in your resolve. It can get difficult. Habits can be hard to break.
- Look forward to a more enriching, spiritual Easter.