Today marks the beginning of Lent in the Western Christian churches. Forty days (not counting Sundays) leading up to Easter. Forty days of renewing our commitment to Christ. Historically, it was a time to prepare new converts for their baptism on the Eve of Easter. It was also a time of penitence for those who had been excommunicated for notorious sins to prepare for reconciliation to the church (also just prior to Easter). That latter bit – humbling the notorious sinner before letting him back into the church – didn’t get much traction, and fell out of practice between the 8th and 10 century AD. But the larger church felt it a helpful discipline to remind everyone of our need for Christ, our need to ever be turning from the world, the flesh, and the devil, and to turn more fully to God in Christ. So, the season of repentance was kept in practice, but for all the folks in the church. After all, we are all sinners, all subject to death, and we all need the Savior. So fasting, almsgiving, good works, and prayers were prescribed for everyone.
It always strikes me a bit funny that the day before we begin Lent, we find a general rush to indulge in all the things we are presumably going to give up for those ‘40 days and 40 nights.’ Fat Tuesday, or Mardi Gras, has come to be a day associated with pancake suppers, parties, and general debauchery. I mean, if what we do during Lent is good for us, why do we need the day of indulgence? It’s also funny that most people are relieved when Lent is over and they can get back to the alcohol, the cigarettes, the sugar and the other what-nots that had been foregone. We are fickle creatures, aren’t we?
But maybe that’s the point. We love our creature comforts so much, that we tend to make our lives all about them – procuring them, stockpiling them, enjoying them, lamenting the loss of them, yadi yadi ya. The things we love in this life will so consume us that we forget the life to come. We forget we were made for more than just earthly pleasures. We forget (more like we willingly suppress the truth) that we will one day die. So, we need a reminder. We need an antidote for the death we must die. We need a real reason and purpose for living out our days here. Enter Lent. Ta-da!
We begin with Ash Wednesday - today. We will have the sign of the cross made on our foreheads with ashes (a sign of repentance, a sign of the judgment our sins deserve, a sign of our mortality) and hear the words “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.” These words are, of course, an echo of the words God spoke to Adam after he and Eve turned from the word of God and believed a lie and did what God had forbidden them to do. If mankind was created to have our life in and with God and we turned from Him in distrust or unbelief or just plain rebellion, death would seem the natural outworking of that turning from God.
Lent calls us to turn to God again, in and through Jesus Christ, and live.