Lent – Not Denial But Transformation
Its Ash Wednesday, (yes it is already Ash Wednesday in Australia and New Zealand) the one day of the year when Christians still flock to church for a mid week service. In some circles it’s become a bit of a fashion statement to have ashes on our foreheads for a day or two. Though traditionally a Catholic observance, Ash Wednesday service and the forty days of Lent which follow, are gaining popularity in a wide variety of denominations from Baptist to Pentecostal.
Most of us think of Lent with a list of trivial things we intent to give up – TV, video games, social media, chocolate, or coffee. Some of us fast for a day or two and get a warm glow of satisfaction because of our sacrifices. Unfortunately these observances make little if any difference to the ongoing journey of our lives and few of us think about using this time to dig deep in our hearts to sweep out the corners in which sin has accumulated, creating barriers between us and God.
Lent is not really about sacrifice and deprivation, it is about freedom and transformation. This is not a time to wallow in our sins and shout woe is me, though it is a time to acknowledge our brokenness, repent of our sins and journey towards wholeness. It is a time to acknowledge the deep longing of our hearts for a more intimate walk with God and consider ways that we might accomplish that.
In the early church Lent was a time of preparation for those about to be baptized. Today it is more often regarded as a season of soul-searching and repentance for all Christians as a preparation for the joy and celebration of Easter. In both cases the focus of Lent is on how to become more effective representatives of Christ and act as citizens of God’s eternal kingdom now, in this world, in anticipation of that day when Christ will make all things new.
A couple of months ago I came across this quote from Thomas Merton’s Seasons of Celebration.
God’s people first came into existence when the children of Israel were delivered from slavery in Egypt and called out into the desert to be educated into freedom, to learn to live with no other master but God himself. (13)
For me Merton’s words sum up the true purpose of Lent. God wants to educate us into the true freedom of following God with all our hearts and minds and actions. In this season God wants to liberate us from the bondages of our slavery to self centredness, greed, busyness, and rampant consumerism. God wants us to help others be liberated from the bondages of poverty, sex trafficking, imprisonment, addictions, injustice and disease. And God wants us to commit to the liberation of our earth from pollution, deforestation and species extinction.
The ashes used in church services on Ash Wednesday are traditionally made by burning the Palm Sunday crosses from the previous year. Last year I did just that and it was so impacting that I have started a new tradition that I intend to perform each year. I burnt my cross, reminding myself that the repentance I seek at this season is only possible because of the incomprehensible gift of Christ and his death on a cross 2,000 years ago. Burning my cross reminds me that the crucifixion is not really about fasting and mourning but rather about transformation. We look beyond the cross to the joy of entering the life of God’s kingdom and this is indeed a season to prepare us for that new life in Christ.
As you are anointed with ashes today and begin your journey through Lent think about the parts of your life that still need to be transformed. What is one place of brokenness you long to see transformed? What practices could you adopt during Lent to see that transformation occur and experience the freedom of following God in new ways?
Read this prayer and spend a few minutes thinking about your commitments for this season. Write them in your journal or on a card you carry with you for the next 40 days.
For more Lenten resources:
A free download for the 40+ days of Lent
And keep your eyes open for upcoming lists on Holy Week: Palm Sunday, Maundy Thursday, Good Friday and Easter Sunday.