Ash Wednesday

Fat Tuesday Extra

Is the Christian season of Lent relevant or a relic? It is something to ponder as we approach Ash Wednesday, the beginning of Lent.

Fasting, a traditional part of Lent, hardly seems fashionable. We live in a culture where hamburgers dance on television to get our attention. A few years ago, Taco Bell advertised the importance of being able to shout, “I’m full!”

In a nation where smartphones are a pocket away and the Apple Watch can make life a nonstop concert, the silence needed for meditation and prayer can be rare, too.

But maybe we just need to modernize some of Lent’s lessons. Lent teaches us that life has value beyond the Value Meal. You don’t have to go digital to know God.

If you’re unfamiliar with Lent, this Christian season begins tomorrow (Feb. 10) with Ash Wednesday. In lots of churches there will be worship services incorporating the “imposition of ashes,” that is, the marking of worshipers’ foreheads with ash in the sign of the cross as a symbol of humility and penitence. Throughout Lent, Christians spiritually prepare themselves for Easter, the most important day of the year, the day we celebrate the resurrection of Jesus Christ.

In the early church, what we now call Lent was the time when converts to Christianity were readied for their baptisms, which happened on Easter Sunday. (In 2016, Easter is March 27.) Over time, Christians began to encourage one another to use those days as an opportunity to better understand the wonderful news Easter brings: Christ is risen! He is risen indeed!

Lent is a time to reconnect with our need for Christ. We do this by reducing our sense of dependence on worldly things and increasing our sense of dependence on God.

Which brings us back to fasting. Usually, fasting is associated with food. During Lent, the decision to forego two or three meals in a row is very appropriate, perhaps once or twice during the week. (This assumes, of course, that you are healthy enough to miss meals.)

Fasting also does not have to involve food. It could involve anything that draws our attention away from God on a regular basis – television, for example.

Fasting, mentioned regularly in the Bible as a way to enhance prayer, is not some burdensome rule for Christians. It is an opportunity, something we do voluntarily and joyously in an effort to draw closer to God.

One other important thing about fasting: Whatever you fast from during the week should be freely available to you on a Sunday during the Lenten season. Sundays are “Little Easters” during Lent, and nothing short of falling into sin should interfere with your joy on these days.

Don’t think Lent is all about denying yourself, though. My favorite part of Lent is what I choose to newly incorporate in my life. Usually, this is some spiritual activity that has been missing or has fallen into decline.

Carving out more time for prayer or Scripture reading is a good example. In fact, you can use the time gained from giving up a less spiritual activity to add something important to your life.

Many people find that by the time Easter arrives, the new spiritual activity has become a habit, and it brings too much joy to let it end with Lent.

You may even find that Lent will cause you to cry, “I’m full!” Full of the Holy Spirit, that is.

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Thursday’s Reflection on Ash Wednesday

Somber as it was, I really enjoyed being with the folks of Cassidy UMC at the Ash Wednesday service. It is a very powerful, personal experience for me to place ashes on the foreheads of adults and children as we remember our mortality and dependence on God. I pray that Lent will be a deeply reflective time for all, and that we will draw closer to God.

We showed a brief video during the service, and in it there was a phrase that startled me. I don’t remember the lead-in exactly, but the video was listing things we should give up. One was “false relief.” At first, I thought it was a typo, that it was supposed to say “false belief.” But false relief makes perfect sense—think of all those things not of God that we do to escape the brokenness of our lives. When we give up false relief, we are left with nothing but true relief, the redemption and renewal Christ has brought into the world.

May we worship well throughout Lent and rejoice at the message of Easter.

To Dust You Shall Return

Today is Ash Wednesday, the start of the season of Lent. Both the day and the season are somber.

At our 7 p.m. service tonight, there will be a point where I take a mixture of palm ashes and olive oil and, neatly as I can, use my thumb to make black crosses on the foreheads of all who come forward. I don’t know how much it readies them for the season—like any liturgical act, it means more to some than to others—but I know it readies me.

As a pastor, I’ve been participating in this ritual annually for almost a decade, saying to each participant, “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.” (An alternate liturgy allows me to say “Repent, and believe the gospel,” but remembering our mortality has always seemed to me to be a better starting point for Lent.)

I have applied the ashes and said these words to people I helped bury just a few months later. I have applied the ashes and said these words to children, including my own children, and have become teary-eyed at the very idea that people so fresh and full of promise will come to an earthly end.

Ash Wednesday begins the cold shower following our warm Christmas soak. Our minds should return to our core problem, laid out in Genesis 3: Sin separates us from God, and what is separate from God ultimately must die.

Without Easter’s clear way out of this mess, the Lenten season would be unbearable. We want to be careful not to rush toward Easter’s light, however. Freedom is hard to appreciate until we understand what we have escaped.