While serving at a church in Pennsylvania, I got stuck at a light on my way to the joint Ash Wednesday worship with the neighboring Episcopal Church. And I mean stuck. As the stop lights cycled multiple times through for everyone else, the light in my lane remained red. Just as I was about to do something I shouldn’t, the light finally turned green, and I arrived right on time.
Ash Wednesday, as the start of Lent, is like that. Ready or not, it’s time to pause and make note of the brake lights and the stop lights. Ready or not, it’s time to travel through the wilderness, take the slow lane or even a different route, knowing that in forty days (minus Sundays), we will still arrive right on time, exactly where we need to be.
The Christian season of Lent begins on Ash Wednesday and ends on Easter Sunday. It is a season of prayer, introspection, and for some, fasting or giving up of certain earthly pleasures. During Lent, Christians reflect on events of the life of Christ leading up to and including his death and resurrection. Forty days of penitent reflection is indeed inspired by the Jesus’s own forty-day experience in the wilderness, accounts of which are found in the books of Matthew, Mark and Luke.
Now we may not find ourselves led out into the wilderness by the Holy Spirit this Lent, as Jesus did. We may not face a talking serpent or the devil face to face. But in the wildernesses that we find ourselves in, be they physical, emotional, or spiritual, we too find our identity tested. We are constantly tempted into thinking that, as we are right now, we are not good enough to be children of God.
Most of us are aware of our limitations and our hang-ups, and the tempter takes every opportunity to remind us of where we fall short. But from my faith perspective, Lent is not for sacrificial self-improvement to be more holy come Easter Sunday. Lent instead takes us through the wilderness to reflect on our own shortcomings, in order to remind us to let God be God. Not so that we can feel guilty at where we fail. But so that we can get out of our own way and be nothing less than members of God’s family. Anecdotally, when Martin Luther felt tempted by the devil to despair, he would shout in response, “I am baptized!” Not “I was”, but “I am.” Present tenses. True in this very moment.
The trip through Lent every year takes us from a garden to a wilderness and back again, from human sin and transgression and death to resurrection, from the ash crosses of Ash Wednesday to the shadow of the cross on Good Friday, through the Garden of Eden, to the garden of Gethsemane, to the garden that contained Jesus’ empty tomb. Every year, we tell the story, to remind ourselves who we are and who we belong to. “I am baptized.” Present tense.
We Christians wear the sign of the cross in ashes on the outside to remind ourselves of the work that God is enacting on the inside of us. The confessing of our sins. The embracing of our brokenness. The naming of our grief and disappointments. And this the slow and painful process of the transforming of our dusty and broken hearts into clean ones, better able to love the other dusty hearts out there in our lives and in the rest of the world. That transformation probably takes more than forty days. But forty days is a good start.