There are two things most people know about Ash Wednesday. The first is that you are likely to see people running around with ashes on their foreheads. The second is that people often give something up for Lent which starts on Ash Wednesday.
The practice of giving up something for Lent can be a powerful experience for some Christians as an introduction to a discipline and a form of fasting. But this giving something up often gets misunderstood. Often people give up something that does not involve much real sacrifice. Giving up candy for 40 days while other people go hungry in nations around the world and in our own backyard may be a good thing for our waste line but is it really a spiritual sacrifice? Others do make significant sacrifices of time and service which may be meaningful.
But for me the practice of giving up some minor thing I enjoy which creates some minor inconvenience for me has just lost its appeal as a spiritual discipline. Instead I’d like Lent to mean more to me than not eating candy, drinking a coffee at Starbucks, or reading some extra Bible passages.
The purpose behind Lent is to prepare ourselves spirituality for the celebration of the death, burial, and resurrection of Christ. It is designed to cause us to think deeply about issues we’d rather not face such as our own humanity and inability to fully live out the gospel, our own frailty, and even our own mortality.
When we say, “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return” we are not trying to make people feel bad or descend into a protracted reverie about death. No on Ash Wednesday we are seeking to fully recognize the need we have deep in the very heart of our being for God in our lives. We are recognizing that we people in need of God’s love and that God wants to be in our lives now, not later, not down the road, we need God now!
In the same way rather than giving up something for Lent that may be a minor inconvenience I’d like for us to consider giving up things that may make an eternal difference, a difference to others, and call us instead to recognize that the reign of Christ is not far off but near.
In Ash Wednesday we recognize that we will not live forever on this earth. Our lives are short and our very existence is in God’s hands. Because God gives a short time to act, and be, and make a difference in this world we should have some urgency about what we do and how we do it.
So in many ways we should be seeking to give and give up bigger things during Lent. We should be seeking to be changed spiritually. It should mean seeking to give up anger, pride, jealousy, or even selfishness and self absorption. It should mean giving up prejudice. It should involve giving up always getting our way or getting our own preferences. It should be a time of spiritual transformation and commitment.
Lent should also be, in our recognition that we only have this season in which God has given us to make a difference in this world, a time to stand up against injustice and oppression in our world because we dare not wait until tomorrow. We must act while it is day.
As we begin this Lenten season and the seasons of the year which lead us to Easter I strongly encourage you not to just show up for church on the high holy and celebratory days of Easter. I encourage and challenge you to receive the Ashes of mortality tonight reminding ourselves that each day is a gift from God, I challenge you to be there with us in the Upper Room on Maundy Thursday as Jesus institutes the sacrament of Holy Communion, to be there on Good Friday when our blessed Lord was betrayed, and then and only then to stand up on Easter Sunday and shout “Jesus Christ is risen!”
This is the season in which we should wrestle with our faith, this is the season in which we should face the truth that we are made of dust, this is the season in which we recognize fully who we are, whose we are, and that all we shall be is a gift of God’s loving and abiding grace. When we do that we really and truly have something to celebrate on that Easter Sunday morning.
This year if you want to do something for Lent or give something up for Lent make it something worth the giving. Give from your heart and life, make a commitment to be more of the person God calls you to be in this holy season.