“Lent offers a beautiful opportunity to discover the mystery of Christ within us. It is a gentle but also demanding time. When we live Lent attentively and gently, then Easter can truly be a celebration during which the full proclamation of the risen Christ will reverberate into the deepest place of our being.”
— Henri Nouwen
This is first in a series of regular Lenten postings you’ll find here between now and Easter. Grace and peace and blessings on you all, dear readers.
Ash Wednesday is a Christian tradition that capitalism seems incapable of vulgarizing the way that market forces have vulgarized Christmas and, to a limited extent, even Easter.
Ash Wednesday reminds us that from so much holy star dust we were made, and to so much Godly star dust we’ll return. It’s such a serious and holy day in the church tradition that it can’t be commercialized and packaged in pretty paper or sold in the form of chocolate eggs and bunnies.
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In my lifetime I’ve seen Ash Wednesday grow a lot in popularity, which ain’t to say it’s grown as popular as, say, Super Bowl Sunday (Sunday being the traditional Sabbath Day that is supposed to be kept Holy). And it’s sure not as popular as your ever-more popular Sabbath Day gun shows.
Still, I’ve seen it grow from being a day that relatively few devout Catholics and Episcopalians observed, to a day that Protestant denominations like my own United Methodist Church have rediscovered and recovered. Today in America you’ll see more people walking around with what look like smudges of dirt on their foreheads than you saw last year.
I dare say Ash Wednesday has become a cool event in a culture that just can’t seem to get enough cool stuff, dude.
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Increasing numbers of American Christians now attend the many Ash Wednesday church services offered in an ever-growing number of churches. Maybe that’s a sign that Americans are hungry for something that’s not cool, but something that’s meaningful and serious.
The imposition of the ashes in the Christian faith-and-church tradition is not–or not supposed to be–some sort of holy, spiritual quickie. It’s the first step in the process of spiritual formation in the holy and very holy season of Lent.
And Lent is not about fasting or giving up something for the sake of showing some kind of vague, spiritual self-discipline.
Take note of this, please, if you’re planning some kind of fast for Lent:
Real fasting will make your stomach growl, and the growl in that empty space within you can be like the chime of a church bell–a reminder to turn your attention to the presence of God within you and around you.
The 40 days that Jesus spent in the wilderness, totally reliant on God for his survival out there, were 40 days of spiritual formation.
Ash Wednesday is not some quick and down and dirty nod to something vaguely Godly and holy.
It’s one relatively small gesture packed with theological meaning, and a good first step to 40 days of deep, spiritual formation.