To a Pentecostal girl, raised without all that fussy liturgical nonsense, Lent has always seemed a bit pretentious. Especially Ash Wednesday. I mean, don’t y’all know that you’re supposed to fast in secret??? Lent seemed like an opportunity to show off what a good Christian you are by giving up something hard like chocolate or soda or Facebook, and it all began with Ash Wednesday, the day when everyone wandered around with crosses smudged on their foreheads proclaiming, “Look at what an awesome Christian I am! I got up super early and went to church on a weekday!”
My, how things have changed.
This morning, I received ashes to celebrate the beginning of Lent for the very first time, and as I have prayed and pondered this experience, I am coming to a new understanding of what Lent means.
Lent is about repentance. It’s a time to acknowledge our short comings as human beings. It’s a time to mourn our failures. Our fasting does not proclaim that we are the best Christians. Rather, it acknowledges that we are the worst. Lent is a time to heap on the sack cloth and ashes and contemplate our inability to follow God wholeheartedly.
Lent is also about renewal. It’s a time to recommit to our struggle against sin. It’s a time to draw closer to God. Our fasting is not a symbol that we have it all figured out. Instead, it gives us space to examine our lives and critically evaluate the ways in which we honor (or fail to honor) God. Lent is a time to cut out the distractions in our lives and make ourselves uncomfortably aware of how we are living out our faith.
Finally, Lent is about futility. For 40 days, we wrestle with our flesh. We repent. We pray. We contemplate God’s word. We abstain from the temporal things that bring us happiness and satisfaction. And at the end of this period, we are no better able to save ourselves than we were on Ash Wednesday. We wake up on Good Friday to find that Christ must die for our sins, that his death and suffering are the only path to salvation. We recognize that all our feeble efforts are in vain because we are saved by grace, through God’s gift of faith. And on Easter Sunday morning, we embrace the futility of our striving against sin and rejoice in the gift of new life, symbolized by Christ’s resurrection.
So on this Wednesday, as I wear my ashes, I am reminded that they are not a gold star that shows what a good Christian I am. They are not a badge of honor or courage. These ashes are for sinners.