I will admit to feeling a little smug in years past, when friends would show up at work on Ash Wednesday with smudges on their foreheads, and talk about what they were giving up for Lent. After all, I knew the truth: God did not require any kind of self-denial on my part in order to gain his favor.
I still believe God doesn’t require that kind of self-denial, which is probably more self-serving in the long run (i.e. to get something from God). But a few years ago, I distinctly felt God prompting me to participate in Lent. Huh? Understanding that perhaps, God wanted me to identify with those friends somehow, I “gave up” something for forty days. I think it was lattes. I had no idea what I was doing, really. All I knew was that I shouldn’t discuss it with anyone; I felt strongly that my Lenten observation was to remain private. Little did I know it was my own proud heart God wanted to address.
That first Lenten fast opened the way for God to speak into my life in amazing ways over the past few years. I love Lent, for the way helps me create space to listen to God. I love the hope it brings, smack-dab in the middle of winter, the season when of necessity, things around us die. Ushered in on Ash Wednesday, I am reminded by ashes smudged on my forehead in the shape of the cross, that I too will die and return to dust someday. I need the reminder of my frail humanity, my brokenness and sin. But Lent is a forward-looking season, as it invites us to do some spring-cleaning in our hearts. We can, with David, pause to reflect on sinful attitudes and behaviors that have cluttered our hearts, and rest in the assurance that God always stands ready to forgive when we open ourselves to him. When Holy Week rolls around, I am struck afresh with the realization that those were my sins that nailed Jesus to the cross, and I revel in the depth of his forgiveness.
And just as Lent is a season, so is Easter. As the disciples lived into a growing awareness that their crucified Lord was now risen and among them, so we too ought to linger in the reality for more than a day. He is risen! He is risen indeed. And as Easter seems to usher in spring, and spring gives way to summer and before we know it, we find ourselves on the eve of Advent, I am reminded over and over again that God holds all things in his hands, including my life.
Our God is a celebratory God, and we, being made in his image, are also given to celebrating and commemorating. But in recent decades, some of our commemorations have almost entirely excluded a celebration of things that really matter. One only has to look in the Sunday paper to see how our culture commemorates days deemed important: the next big sale! True, there is no specific exhortation in Scripture to observe Lent (although practices such as fasting and repentance and confession are very much rooted in Scripture). But neither is there any exhortation to observe Christmas or birthdays! But for years, the church has endeavored to remember and celebrate the life of Christ through various seasons. By entering into these seasons, we pause to reflect on the ongoing life and work of Christ. And in doing so, we find ourselves rooted more deeply into God’s great story.
(For more on the seasons of the church year, check out The Circle of Seasons. I just finished this book, and although this is not exactly a review of the book, it was influential in this post, which I’ve been working on forever!)