We have begun the Lenten journey – the annual “pilgrimage” towards Holy Week and Easter Sunday! The purpose of Lent, as observed by many Western Christians at least, is for a time of prayer, repentance, reflection and self denial. Sounds like a blast, right? Then after 6 weeks, we reach the culmination – the remembrance of Jesus’ death and burial on Good Friday. Many churches will commemorate this day with a somber, almost funeral-like service. This Lenten journey begins with Ash Wednesday.
On Ash Wednesday, some churches will hold services where a dark ash is placed on every forehead making the sign of the cross. The words from Genesis 3:19 are typically spoken “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.” It is a reminder of our sinful human nature and the short span of our lives here on earth.
To own our sin and encounter the certainty of our human death can be overwhelming. To hear the words spoken to your child is even more unnerving. It is one thing to be in touch with your own mortality, but to hear – or say – it to your child is almost too much reality. It is a reminder that my children are not “mine” – they are on loan to me. My son and daughter are children of God first, and children of my husband and I second.
I tried to talk to my 6-year-old about Ash Wednesday. He actually remembered it from last year, and he was very concerned about the ash on his forehead; he was afraid it would be itchy. That is what he remembered. He was far more focused on the itchy forehead than the purpose of Ash Wednesday and Lent!
So far I’ve defined Lent with sin, self denial, funeral-like church services, and impending death. This is pretty heavy stuff to discuss with a 6-year-old! But Ash Wednesday and Lent are not intended to be depressing! This is a time to repent, reflect, and seek grace and deep relationship with God, always living in the hope that Easter morning has come! I CAN discuss that with a 6-year-old. He sins; he makes bad choices and seeks forgiveness. Yet he can appreciate that his Dad and I, and his God, will love and forgive him no matter what!
When I truly use the time we are given during Lent and Holy Week each year for self reflection, conversation with God and awareness of the awesomeness of God’s grace, Easter morning becomes a much more meaningful and deeply spiritual moment for me. Yes – God’s grace is a free gift, which is mine, no strings attached. But sometimes I take this for granted, and in the midst of a busy world filled with pain and injustice, it is too easy to forget God’s grace and lose hope. It is critical that I set aside time specifically to deepen relationship with God; to pray, study and just listen. But I think equally important for me is to bring the hope we have in God into my daily, normal life; into the way I live my life and interact with other people. Easier said than done, right?
As I was searching around the internet about Ash Wednesday, I learned that some cities have “Ashes to Go.” Leaders from a church will head out to street corners, coffee shops, subway stations and other ordinary places to offer a short time of prayer, repentance and imposition of ashes.
At first I thought this was a bad idea – these people are missing out on community and time to worship in a church. But the more I consider it, this might actually be the better option. These people acknowledged sin and God’s grace out there in the real world, amongst their peers. What a witness to God’s glory!
So the Lenten journey continues – 6 weeks that I’m certain will move far too quickly. Regardless of how I live out this journey, the hope offered through God’s unlimited grace, mercy, forgiveness and love is mine. Lent begins, but Easter morning has already come!