Ash Wednesday is, I believe, the only significant day in the church calendar that has not been commercialized. Only in recent years have greeting cards for Lent appeared. Of course, the Mardi Gras celebrations which end on Shrove Tuesday provide a raucous break before the somber season of Lent begins the next day as we meet for Ash Wednesday worship.
The mood of the Lenten season is not to be gloomy, our lives clouded by guilt or burdened by shame. It is not a time for us to feel bad or guilty but a serious season, a solemn season, in which we are invited to take time for reflection and penitence in the heart of winter. A time to look at our lives, our values, our behavior, our goals, not to feel guilty but to turn towards God’s love and care.
The root word of repent means “to turn”. Lent calls us to turn away from those things which diminish our lives and more importantly, to turn towards those things, or the One who enriches our life.
As former pastor at the SD State Penitentiary I feel compelled to point out that repent is also the root word of penitentiary. When the first penitentiaries were created by Quakers at the time of the American revolution the hope and intent for those incarcerated was to ‘turn their lives around.’ This movement was in response to the prisons of the day where the focus was on the past and punishment, rather than the future and rehabilitation.
I like Lent because the truth is spoken: we are mortal, we don’t live as we ought. In Lent our story is woven into scripture. As we reflect during these 40 days we are drawn into the Biblical story. Our 40 day journey echoes Noah’s 40 days on the Ark, the Israelites 40 years in the wilderness, Moses 40 days on Mt. Sinai as well as Elijah and Jesus 40 days in the wilderness.
It is, I think, no coincidence that when Mardi Gras ends, people take off their masks. Lent invites us to reflect and repent so our lives might conform more closely to Jesus’ call to love God and love our neighbor.
In the Bible ashes and dust are symbols of our mortality. They are also a symbol of repentance and cleansing. Some of us remember making soap out of ashes in elementary school, an ancient tradition.
In worship we refrain from singing “Alleluia,” not as a sign of our holiness but a recognition that even small and insignificant changes are difficult. Our feeble efforts remind us of our dependence on God. Our lives are fragile, we cannot go without food, we cannot live as we ought or as we would like. Lent calls us to hunger not only for food but for justice and peace and righteousness.
Pastor Bob Chell