It was over a decade of being a Christian before anyone told me about Lent – the longstanding tradition of cordoning off the 40 weekdays prior to Easter Sunday as a time of focused mortification of our sin.
To this day, Ash Wednesday and the season of Lent have become important to my spiritual rhythms. From the imposition of the ashes to “Black Saturday”, this season more than any of the others seems genuine, honest, and practical … where some serious spiritual work gets done.
Still, every year, there’s an old reflex within me that comes from my early days as a believer. A voice from my Christian past whispers to me, “Isn’t this stupid? Why wallow in your sin? It’s been paid for and forgiven … why focus on it? Is this just an old Medieval ploy by the church to try to make me feel guilty, so it can manipulate me?”
(I know I’m not alone in harboring some of these thoughts. We celebrated Ash Wednesday at the independent Evangelical church where I recently served as pastor. The first time we imposed ashes caused at least one member of our congregation to leave. For her, it was just too morbid, too negative, too … “Catholic”.)
Yes, there are some unhealthy Lenten practices out there, spawned by unhealthy Lenten theologies. Some turn Lent into a self-help season, or a weight-loss program. Others attempt to overcome sinful habits by their own power, which is futile. Some, believing God is mad at them for their sin, use the season to beat themselves up, thereby beating God to the punch. Still others act like angry dog owners, grabbing their spiritual lives by the scruff of the neck, and sticking their noses in the doo-doo of their sin, believing that, if we really see and smell how awful our lives are, surely we’ll stop making such messes in the future.
But, as David says, “I know my transgressions, and my sin is ever before me” (Ps. 51:3). I don’t need a church calendar season to promote my sin-awareness (though some litanies help me take stock of some areas that have gone unattended, which is helpful).
So … should I go to the Ash Wednesday service tonight? Is there a way to enter into this classical family tradition in a healthy way? If my sin has been cast as far as the east is from the west, why should it be reapplied to my forehead?
Yes, I’m going. And I’m entering into Lent. More on why as our journey continues…
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