Today, millions of Christians gathered in churches around the world to get on their knees and have their forehead marked with an ashy cross as they heard either the words, “Repent, and believe the gospel!” or “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.”
Ash Wednesday commences a 46-day (40 days excluding Sundays) period of fasting known as Lent in preparation for Easter that has been celebrated since the days of the early church (with recorded discussions of Lent as early as the third century; the Ash Wednesday tradition began in the eighth century). Those who participate in Lent may choose to give up a worldly pleasure (like sweets or Netflix) for 40 days and give more to the poor, or add in a spiritual discipline, practicing the divine exchange of sin for grace.
In the Protestant tradition in which I grew up we did not practice Lent (though many Protestant denominations do), but as an adult I have come to love Lent as my favorite season of the church calendar. Here are 10 reasons why.
1. I love that Hallmark just cannot find a way to make money off of Ash Wednesday, Maundy Thursday, or even Good Friday.
2. Lent is the time of year when people who get labeled as melancholics and the depressed get to shine. (If you’ve read any of the Old Testament prophets, by the way, they definitely fit in this category.) Lent is a celebration of mortality, a time for everybody to think about what “glass half-empty” folks already think about all the time—things like, “We are all going to die. People should think about that more!”
3. The eighteenth-century German writer Johann Goethe allegedly wrote that “he who cannot draw on 3,000 years is living hand to mouth.” As Christians, grafted into God’s family by Jesus, we share in the history of the Israelites, which goes back over 4,000 years (with father Abraham having lived roughly around 2000 BCE). Lent is a time for remembering where we come from as a sacred people group: forty days on an ark through a (seemingly nonsensical) flood; forty days on a thunderstorming mountaintop to receive the Law of God, going holy-crazy till our face shines like the sun; forty days searching out the Promised Land and bringing back gargantuan fruit as a sign; forty days listening for the still small whispering voice of a God who roars; forty days to play recalcitrant, runaway prophet, moping under a vine while the people actually do repent; forty days to lie on our side with the weight of our nation’s sin holding us down when it doesn’t repent; forty days alone to face down the devil, all the while becoming very hungry; forty days to walk the earth with a strange, transmogrified body before ascending to heaven to sit down at God’s right hand. Forty days to remember that what comes after all the waiting is heaven.
4. Well, okay, we’re not to the risen Christ yet. Instead, we get to remember him in all the modes of living we don’t like: being tempted, misunderstood, and, ultimately, betrayed and rejected. I’m thankful for Jesus’ ultimate sacrifice . . . but really I’m also so thankful to Jesus for all the years he lived here, being ordinary like us, putting up with all our pettiness, sifting through the bowels of reality, and somehow not sinning in his assessment of the human lot.
5. “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.” These words are spoken to sober, to stir repentance at the imposition of the ashes. I always think, “What a relief”—a relief to give up trying to be . . . impressive. Repentance means becoming realistic about who we are.
Like most Millennials, I love taking personality tests, analyzing my spiritual gifts, finding my strengths, and reckoning the hue of my [insert random-kitschy-noun here—parachute?], but Lent reminds us of simple truths, and it’s the simplest we need the most reminders for: I’m a creature that will decompose, but I get to breathe and enjoy life with other creatures. I’m a child of God who will last forever. I’m a sinner saved by grace, and my Savior made himself into quite the mess for me with all those bloody marks still showing up there.
6. It’s really awesome to look around and see a bunch of other people with smudgy black crosses on their foreheads. On the campus where I minister, with its dense population, you get a lot of second-takes from people without crosses, and a sense of silent solidarity with people who are also choosing to display their repentance. A spiritual cat is out of the bag (albeit a sad lil’ guy). Those ashy crosses dotting faces are beautiful. Other forms of evangelism are of course needed, but I find this humble “sign and symbol” a refreshing alternative to a “winning” Christianity. That forehead smudge proclaims that we are all, in fact, losers—if it weren’t for the cross.
7. I find the spiritual air on earth during Lent to be particularly invigorating. I don’t think I’m making it up or that I am especially mystical in this regard. In these forty days, millions of people are fasting to make room for Jesus. The global Church is taking a collective deep breath, making room in its lungs for the long-haul. I’m so grateful to know that Christians worldwide are in it to lose it right now. As we plant our face to the ground in repentance, let’s imagine a chain of brothers and sisters also on their faces, clasping hands and reaching around the globe: we the Church are repenting together.
8. So many people suffer. Even in church, we still largely celebrate the shiny sides of people—their gifts, their passions, their victories and answered prayers. We all want to live bright lives, and Holy Spirit makes us light up all right. But we all suffer, many of us horribly so, much of the time. We have chronic fatigue syndrome that makes it almost impossible for us to be productive. We’ve lost a child to suicide and we don’t know why we’re still living. Our second husband has left us and, while we know God loves us, we often feel that there is no love for us left in the world. These sufferings are so real. They are part of being united with Christ.
Lent is a time to hear those people, to see the image of the Lord in what is, yet, not. I will never forget one Good Friday service I attended, in which seven people shared stories of how the seven last phrases of Christ (respectively) had applied to their lives. The vulnerability they modeled by exposing their losses, rejections, and sad, quiet attempts to love God when it’s hard stunned me and changed me, for good. Now is the time to air our stories.
9. Indulging can be exhausting. It’s great to have an “excuse” to break up with cravings. To look at what I want, and then, instead of scheming about how to get it or praying about why I don’t have it yet, to do something else. Every year when Ash Wednesday comes around I think back to past Lents—to what I “gave up” and what God gave me. It’s an anniversary of transforming love, a grace: something palpable that God has set in place to remind us he’s there.
10. I like a good challenge. Lent is God throwing us a challenge, and it’s a really good one. Of course we’ll fail at our resolutions or want to give up. But that’s the whole point of the challenge: Repent, and believe the gospel!
Image by twentyonehundred productions team member Matt Kirk.