Today, we’ll begin our observance of Lent. We’ll receive the smudge of ashes on our foreheads, and then Lent will have begun, and we’ll share our first Eucharistic meal of the season with no alleluias. We’ll become familiar once again with liturgy we don’t regularly use: Rite One worship beginning the penitential order and the decalogue, Christs’ summation of the law, and the Kyrie; the comfortable words and the prayer of humble access.
What is this all about? Why change things up…why observe Lent?
Traditionally, Lent is a time of preparation…for early converts to the Faith, it was forty days of preparing their hearts and minds for the sacrament of Holy Baptism. For early believers, the time was spent in prayer and fasting, strengthening their faith, and rededicating themselves to the Christ. For modern Christians, it is intended to be a season of fasting and self-denial, so that we can be prepared for the sorrows of Holy Week, and for the Joys of Easter.
And it begins with a smudge of ashes on the forehead…but why ashes?Because the ashes remind us of human mortality. “Remember…from dust you came and to dust you will return.” But do we really need the reminder?
In the course of a life, we receive many reminders of our mortality: friends and relatives grow old or ill, and leave us; news of some horrible mishap somewhere, or of some new and inexplicable act of violence in the world, reminds us that we are always susceptible to the unexpected; or perhaps an unexpected illness – even when it isn’t all that serious – can remind us that we aren’t going to live forever. But, because we live by faith, we have hope in eternity.
Through faith in Christ Jesus, we believe that there is something beyond mortal life. Our humanness does not just slip away; rather, it passes through death into life. The Church has held to this hope since its very beginning; the Church is built on this hope. And so, we ask if these ashes can symbolize something more than just birth to death…dust to dust. And if so, perhaps it’s this: Lent - a season of self-denial and sacrifice – is meant to call to mind the selflessness of Christ as he prepared for his own death and resurrection. The ashes remind us that if we are to be raised with him in his eternal life, we must first participate in his mortal life.
Jesus said to his disciples, you must pick up your cross and follow. Because Christians are called to a life of discipleship, the ashes remind us that we must die to self to some degree…crucify the flesh, I believe St. Paul called it. Lent reminds us to do our utmost to put to death those elements of life that burden our souls; the unreasonable demands of the flesh and the passions of the mind.
And so, we give up some small pleasure in our lives: a favorite food, or a habit, and there’s nothing at all wrong with this. But the ashes also remind us to mortify the powerful desires of the heart and mind, to let go of anger and jealousy, of power, control and entitlement, or of anything that hinders spiritual wholeness. Lent - and the ashes we smear on our heads - remind us of our mortality. But they also remind us that living for Christ is a daily process of dying to self.
Ultimately, the season reminds us of our hope that, through faith - after we have lived this life, with all its ups and downs, all its trials - we will find that life is not ended, but changed. And this season of Lent – with the ashes and liturgy and denial – are simply part of preparing for eternity.
May God further guide us toward eternity in this season of Lent.