Growing up, I always perceived Ash Wednesday as the magical day when all "good " Christians somehow purged themselves of the debauchery and hedonism that has crept into their lives over the last year; especially after Mardi Gras. Mostly, I remember classes being cut short so that all good Catholic school students could attend Ash Wednesday Mass, and the subsequent embarrassment of walking around all day with "dirt" on my forehead. "Hey, church boy! You've got dirt on your head!" When I got home from school, my mom was always quick to remind me not to wash the ashes off until bedtime, but was more lenient once I started to develop acne. Those oily ashes can wreak havoc on a teenage forehead. I have always found it perplexing that some pastors have the skill of creating a perfect cross, while others only seem to manage an unidentifiable smudge.
But as I look back on my spiritual journey, Ash Wednesday was merely a strict religious observance and nothing more. I had no idea why I was called to observe the day, and had no clue what the ashes were supposed to symbolize in terms of my faith. I was a faithful Catholic and believed in Christ, but in terms of dedication, giving up meat on Friday was about as far as I would go. Have you noticed all the fast food restaurants pushing fish on their menus lately? I wonder what McDonald's will do to rival the culinary delight of their "Fish McBites" from last year?
So this year I'm wondering to myself if Lent is suppose to mean more than just giving up something? Is it more than marathon prayer meetings, fasting, reading scripture and other "religious" activities? Is there more to Ash Wednesday? Is there more to observing Lent? I think there is, but I think that most of us don't want to think about it, because Lent has to do with a really nasty word. OK, now I'm going whisper it so that no one else hears. Ready? "Sin". Gasp! There, I said it! I know. I know. No one likes to talk about it, right? But we're all screwed up anyway, so let's just throw it out there and get it out in the open.
When you get right down to it, Lent is about sin. It's about looking back and reflecting over the last year and coming face to face with all the crap that has infected our lives. It's about taking stock of our walk with Christ, and meditating on the areas that we have fallen short. And as we enter these 40 days together, it's a time to prepare ourselves for Easter. A time of the year that we stop and remember that our Christian faith revolves around the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, and nothing more.
Lent is not about looking more "holy" because you have ashes on your forehead. It's not about fasting so that all your friends can see how dedicated you are. It's not about piously praying several times a day so that those you work with can witness your awesome dedication to God. And I've got news for you; it's not about sacrifice. God doesn't want out lame sacrifices anyway.
When we think of Lent, we automatically think of giving up something, right? We give up sweets, coffee, smoking, technology, drinking, sex (no way!), anger, meat, cussing, etc...etc...etc. And although sacrifice is a vital aspect of the Lent experience, I think it has become a distraction from what what we are really called to as followers of Christ. We live in a culture, and are even part of a Church, that finds it politically incorrect to talk about sin. We don't like to confess sin to one another, because that makes us "bad" Christians. We don't like to hold someone accountable for sin, because that would be judgmental. And let's face it, in the post-modern church of today, sin is offensive. It's become intolerant to even mention sin for fear that others might think we're religious zealots.
Now, I am in no way advocating that we pursue campaigns of judging one another, and I'm not suggesting forms of self-righteousness. I'm not even asking us to feel bad about our faults and failures. We carry enough guilt during the rest of the year. Like I said, we're all screwed up to some extent, and those of you that know me know that I'm up there with the worst of them. I guess what I'm getting at is that maybe it's time to observe Lent for what it is: a time of repentance. Repentance is a good thing when you think about it. It's not about some angry person on the street corner screaming, "REPENT!" It's not about doom and gloom, fire and brimstone and God's wrath on pathetic worthless sinners like you and me. Repentance, when you get right down to it, is about loving one another. When we call each other to turn from our sins and turn back to God, we are essentially communicating to them that we care about them. It's about saying to those we love, "Repent! Please! Because I love you and see what a freaking mess your life is! And my life is a mess too! Help me! I'll help you! We're in this together!"
So, as we begin Lent on this Ash Wednesday, let's commit to the discipline of repenting. It really is an ancient discipline, when you get right down to it. Repent! And do me a favor. Challenge me to repent as well, especially when I fall short. Because I will fall short again and again. I promise. Because I'm a mess.