Less is More
Lent is 40 days spent contemplating the significance of our baptism at Easter as we "pass over" with Christ from death to new life. For Pastor Josh, rediscovering this long-held church tradition revealed the deep redemptive love God has for each of us.
I grew up in a faith tradition that celebrates Lent religiously.
Every year on Ash Wednesday, I remember my parents, sister, and I trudging through the snow and ice to attend a somber church service dedicated to reflection, meditation, and confession of sins. I often celebrated this cherished ritual with cold reluctance and silent protest.
It's difficult to be reminded that we are made of dust, and to dust, we shall return. My adolescent immaturity often puffed me up into side-eyeing the world with rebellious defiance even with ashes smeared in the shape of a cross across my forehead. After all, I thought I was kind of a big deal.
For my delicate ego and impoverished character, the long-held practice of applying ashes was mechanical and the cherished tradition of call-and-response-confession was void of any real significance—or so I thought. Standing limp-kneed in the pews, my voice echoed hollow words and my body pantomimed obedience by weakly going through the motions.
For me, Lent was a cavernous ritual of emptiness. Partly because I didn't really understand what it was all about. Mostly because I was too full of myself.
40 Days of Reflection
What I failed to realize at the time is that Lent invites us into healthy self-reduction as we consider our baptismal life and faith. During the course of 40 days, we have the opportunity to contemplate the significance of our Baptism at Easter as we "pass over" with Jesus from death to new life.
The ashes applied on Wednesday suggest God's judgment and condemnation of sin, they symbolize our frailty and total dependence on God, and they represent our humiliation and repentance. And yet they also embody the battle for cleansing and renewal Jesus brutally waged and won on the cross.
Spring Cleaning for Our Souls
Ash Wednesday begins Lent. The day gets its name from the traditional blessing of the ashes taken after the burning of palm branches from the previous year’s Palm Sunday celebrations. In some churches, the ashes are used to draw a cross on the head of people to mark the beginning of their Lent fast. The drawing of a cross is often done while repeating the words “Repent and believe in the Gospel” (Mark 1:15) or “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return” (Genesis 3:19).
A common practice in the observance of Lent is fasting—a tangible, physical decrease in our lives so that our recognition of the presence of God might increase.
Ever wonder why the Filet-O-Fish gets special attention on the McDonald's sign this time of year? Meat used to be more expensive than fish and was therefore considered a luxury. Many Christians to this day abstain from eating meat—at least on Fridays—as a way to observe the penitent nature of Lent. Fast food restaurants are just here to serve us (wink, wink).
It is also becoming increasingly common for people to give up other things in order to refocus their faith during this time; such as watching TV, going to the gym, even social media.
And yet to focus on the mechanism of fasting alone can obscure our gaze upon what is the holy epicenter of this ritual.
Fasting is meant to remove clutter from the soul. In our restraint, we are to become weak. And only in our weakness can we be reminded of our complete and utter dependence on God.
In her book "40 Days of Decrease: A Different Kind of Hunger. A Different Kind of Fast." author Alicia Britt Chole writes, "To humble us, to test us, to know what is in our hearts...such is the sifting power of helplessness. In our daily lives we may prefer self-reliance. But perhaps utter dependence is the truer friend of our souls."
In other words, intentional efforts to diminish ourselves helps reveal a significant truth: God is not silent in our lives. We struggle to hear Him only because our selfish ambitions and desires have become too loud.
It's taken me the better part of 25 years to understand the fullness of what John the Baptist revealed with one simple statement about what our relationship with God should look like:
"He must become greater; I must become less.” — John 3:30
Old is New Again
What's been perhaps the sweetest outcome of rediscovering Lent, is how God has shown me His mercy through the process. I needed to step back from the rituals and traditions I grew up with. Not to walk away from them forever, but to eventually return to them with a renewed spirit within me.
Last year, my wife Emily and I thought it would be special to host an Ash Wednesday gathering with our Spiritual Formation Group. God had inspired in us the desire to study Lent and to spend the 40 days participating in a series of "heart fasts" as detailed in the book "40 Days of Decrease: A Different Kind of Hunger. A Different Kind of Fast." by Alicia Britt Chole (Grab a copy, it's worth it.)
As I worked through the details of our gathering, I called up Pastor Steve at Grace Lutheran Church in Boone to see if he might have some ashes we could use. Thankfully he had more than enough to share (Note to self: When ordering ashes on Amazon, pay close attention to the delivery date). And he made special arrangements for us to meet.
I pulled into the church parking lot, and God's redeeming love drowned out any whispers of apprehension I may have heard about applying ashes to our friends' foreheads. God also pulled the weeds of old regrets from me. In their place, he planted a fresh, life-giving experience where it will thrive and blossom.
That place is hidden in the deep recesses of my mind where I regret leaving for college and turning my back on the church and her many beautiful traditions. I know this led me into a dark season of life when my soul was slowly withering away. Only through God's mercy and grace would I come to understand my need for His salvation from my selfishness. Traditions like Lent offer a specific way and time for me to remember that.
As I stood learning from Pastor Steve how to properly prepare and administer palm ashes, I was reminded of Luke 4—that anointed with the Holy Spirit Jesus was to show, and to be, mercy. And as a follower of Christ, I want to spend 40 days, if not every day of my life, remembering that I am a redemptive work of that m