Does Lent seem weird to you? If you didn’t grow up marking this time of the year or aren’t familiar with it, “odd” may not begin to describe it for you. The whole thing begins with a day called “Ash Wednesday” in which people have ashes placed on their foreheads and are reminded that they are going to die. And that’s just how the party starts!
This period of quiet reflection, reorienting our lives, and yes, sacrifice, is often misunderstood. Most people in my progressive religious tradition don’t get anywhere near it, but I love it. I can see a lot of reasons why independent, progressive-leaning, modern westerners would balk at this time. It’s just a couple of months past New Years resolutions, and we’re already talking about giving something else up? Isn’t that just for Catholics? Do non-Christians have anything to get out of it? Why just punish myself? Is this whole thing motivated by guilt? Come on, if I stop drinking Starbucks for a few weeks and start back up again, what good has been done? Isn’t is more like a vanity project to feel self-righteous for a while?
Lent has been around for a long, long time. It is one of the oldest practices and holy periods in the Christian tradition. Officially, records show it on the books for at least 1500 years, and there is some evidence suggesting that people marked this tradition up to around 1800 years ago. Traditionally, Lent is understood as a 40-day period where the devout prepare for the Easter story through reflection and fasting to mirror Jesus fasting and praying in the desert for 40 days. Tons of other stories in the biblical scriptures have 40 days or 40 years to mark important periods. Don’t take it literally. It’s a symbol pointing toward a period of transformation. You know something big is happening if it says it took 40 days or 40 years. Cultures are born. Deep insights are gained. The world is ripped open and born anew. People change. You change. That’s where Lent comes in.
People tend to focus on the question, “what are you giving up for Lent?” Lots of people forego something that they do, eat, or drink for a while. That’s certainly a part of it, but it really only points toward the larger goal. The giving up isn’t the point, its where it gets you.
In our culture obsessed with more, faster, bigger, better – less has something to teach us. When people are celebrities for being rich and presidents brag about how much money they have and how little taxes they pay, a reflection on what we actually need matters. Sure, you might quit drinking for a few weeks or hold off on the coffee on the way to work. What happens next is the point.
When we break unthinking routines of consumption, we feel things we don’t normally feel. Hunger, desire, need, perhaps something that resembles addiction. Breaking the routine teaches us about how we’re being pushed and pulled, what we value, which feelings we feed and which ones we might be numbing habitually. It is spirituality by subtraction. It’s not about what we give up, but highlighting what we need. We see under the surface our need for care, safety, shelter, food, a sense of purpose, love, and rest.
You Will Die
The whole thing starts with Ash Wednesday. “Remember you are dust, and to dust you shall return.” Whether secular or sacred, there is meaning in it. We are literally formed from the matter of exploded, dead stars – creatures of dust who are awake enough to know it. But just for a while.
This year, the Ash Wednesday service at my congregation felt different to me. In a quiet, dark sanctuary, I looked directly into the eyes of people I care about. My thumb, covered in ash and oil, pressed against the flesh of their forehead leaving a mark. A whisper in the room. “Remember you are dust, and to dust you shall return.” It felt more intimate than ever. We saw each other and remembered that we were temporary. Not some abstract conversation, but a concrete reminder. The human in front of me will die. They are fragile and resilient at the same time. It was a reminder to take good care of each other.
You Can Change
At the core of this period of reflection is the assumption that you can change. That ancient symbol of 40 days being a transformative time has something to do with you. The quiet self-reflection, watching our consumption and actions says that we don’t have to be driven by habit or auto-pilot. Allowing mistakes in our actions or words to be our teachers isn’t about guilt, it is about the knowledge that what we do matters, and we can live differently if we want to. This spirituality by subtraction ends with empowerment and purpose.
It’s Worth It
In a culture of excess, of fetishizing wealth and the wealthy, Lent has something to teach us. You need very little, but what you do need is precious.
In a time characterized by moral outrage and mistrust of the political other, Lent has something to teach us. All people are temporary. Flesh and bone. Ash and dust. Everyone is fragile and resilient, beautiful and flawed, hopeful and scared at times. Take good care of each other.
In a time of great anxiety, Lent has something to teach us. You can do some things, but not everything. Own up for your mistakes and make things right when you can. We cannot protect ourselves and the people we love from all forms of harm. But we can make life more loving and whole right now. We can change, and life can be better.
So, I’m honoring Lent again this year. This counter-cultural, odd celebration of the finite. I’m taking stock, giving up, looking within, and hoping for a deeper life until I become the ash and dust.