Traditionally, the 40-day season of Lent, which begins on Ash Wednesday, was seen as a time of penitence and preparation. In ancient Israel, ashes were often used to symbolize the pervasiveness of sin and the inevitability of death. Many Christians have adopted this symbol — both to reflect our own mortality and to serve as a reminder that in the church year we are moving toward Jesus’ passion and death.
When I was younger, I saw Lent as a pretty depressing time, a part of the year which had to be endured but certainly not enjoyed — much like a shot at the doctor’s office — something you were told was good for you, but which you didn’t like while it was happening, and were sure glad when it was over. I’d sometimes give up something I really loved, trying to imagine what my life would be like without God’s presence.
And I’ll admit I wasn’t very good at it. Giving up something only lasted for a week or two, and temperamentally, I’m just not good at being sad for that long. More importantly, I have always found it impossible to focus on Jesus’ passion and death without also remembering his joy-filled resurrection three days later. And while I do feel convicted by my sin, such conviction is always combined with an enormous sense of gratitude for God’s grace and forgiveness.
So maybe you can imagine my sense of relief when I discovered – only relatively recently — that I was thinking of Lent all wrong. (OK, so maybe I’m just a bit slow here – many of you probably knew this all along.) Instead of seeing Lent as a time when I should pretend that things stopped at the crucifixion, I began to see Lent as a gift from God. Certainly penitence remains a big part of it, but I now understand Lent as an opportunity to reorient my relationship with God – a time to rediscover my identity, to remember who I am and whose I am. And a time to ask the question moving forward “how do I live as God’s child in this time and place?”
As we move through these next forty days, I invite you to ask that same question – not with fear or anxiety, but with a confident hope and yes, even an underlying joy. For our God, whose last word is always resurrection and new life, continues to hold you firmly in his hand, and continues to invite you into the amazing things that God is doing all around us each and every day.