I grew up in a Roman Catholic community, and Lent was a big deal. We would talk about it at school and at the dinner table. Unfortunately, the spirituality of Lent and fasting rarely came up. The conversation usually centered on chocolate, ice cream, or “giving up being nice to my brother.” It was a bit of a contest: could you do what you said you would do for 40 whole days?
Lent made an impression on me as a rule-following child. I tried my hardest to follow the letter of the law during Lent—but I also tried to work around the spirit of the law. One year as a teenager, for example, I gave up ice cream but spent an entire afternoon making (really terrible) “ice milk” from scratch to satisfy my craving. In my mind, I was still obeying the rules.
In college, my faith in Christ became more central in my life. I began to see the season of Lent as an invitation to participate in Christ’s suffering and an opportunity to prepare for the resurrection. So I became more serious about my Lenten disciplines. One year I fasted over lunch every day and prayed when I would normally have eaten with friends.
In recent years I’ve tried to be not just serious but also more creative during Lent, which led me, one year, to adopt the discipline of dating—but that is a story for another blog!
In all these phases of celebrating this season of the Church year, one thing remained central: I had to keep following the rules. I had to keep doing—or not doing—the thing I had promised to do or not do for 40 days.
But I never did it quite right. I would eat something I was not supposed to eat, or forget to pray when I said I would pray. I would feel guilty. I would feel like I had to hide my failure. I would feel like I had to pretend.
Then one year a good friend said to me, “The point of giving up something for Lent is that you can’t do it. You aren’t strong enough. You will fail, and that is the point.” At the time I didn’t believe him. I was working hard to participate in the suffering of Jesus; shouldn’t I be able to suffer for just 40 days?
But this year, I am starting to believe his words—in part because I already feel like I have been failing left and right, even before Lent begins today!
So I am adopting these words: I can’t.
This morning, I listened to my priest pray over a bowl of dirt, saying: Almighty God, you have created us out of the dust of the earth: Grant that these ashes may be to us a sign of our mortality and penitence, that we may remember that it is only by your gracious gift that we are given everlasting life; through Jesus Christ our Savior.
And then my priest drew a cross on my forehead with the dirt and said: Remember that you are dust, and to dust you will return. I am wearing that symbol of my mortality around for the day. It will fade and smudge and be almost gone—as a symbol of impermanence should—before I wash it off tonight.
It is, of course, a very counter-cultural practice. Our culture tells us a story of lives without boundaries, in which we work hard and accomplish the things we desire. Ash Wednesday gives us a different story. It tells us we are created in the image of God, but also flawed and vulnerable and prone to failure. We can’t. But we serve a God who can.
As we begin Lent on this Ash Wednesday, I am thankful for the reminder that it is only by God’s gracious gift that I have anything to give at all. I cannot prove my worthiness by observing a perfect Lent, but I can take on practices that will draw me closer to Jesus, especially when I fail at them.
May this season of Lent draw you closer to God, who, through Jesus, has taken our brokenness and who, by the Spirit, is making us whole. Amen.