Updated: Mar 2, 2022
I need Ash Wednesday.
Personally, I need Lent.
Ash Wednesday and Good Friday are my favorite Christian observances.
The very meaning of Ash Wednesday and Lent are positively anti-American, anti-consumerism, and anti-self-indulgent. That's what I love most about them. 'They are prophetic. Ash Wednesday and Lent speak something sacred, divine, and transcendent into our culture.
The ashes rage against the religion of self-aggrandizement and culture of more. Lent begs a different kind of personal wake-up and a different pathway to it.
Christian or not, the very idea that you will find yourself and what really matters in life NOT by buying something or enhancing yourself, but by giving something up and minimizing yourself is counter-intuitive. The best way to define that kind of counter-cultural pathway to life and personhood in a world obsessed with self, identity, and consumption is spiritual.
Ash Wednesday launches us into Lent's season of minimalism. Fasting from meat, screens, or regular comforts is a long tradition with Lent.
The ashes of Ash Wednesday get us started. They remind me that as human beings we are:
spirit and body
soul and matter
mind and carbon
divinity and dirt
stardust (thank you Joni Mitchell) and ash
Reminding me that I'm both spirit and dirt brings me back to universals. Every human life is a unity of breath and dirt (Genesis 2:7). Everyone's blood runs red. Every person is precious and unique. And, all of us die. Our bodies return to the earth. For me, this reminder is life-giving.
Lent has been traditionally a time of repentance. Repentance has lost almost all its meaning in US Christianity. It‘s usually part of some salvation formula for an angry god. “Repent” evokes reactions of anger, shame or false humility when used. But, repentance means metanoia (Greek) or renewal. It means changing our minds, but also our hearts and disposition. Repentance, rightly practiced, changes our relationship to things, including ourselves, our lives, and one another.
Ash Wednesday and Lent remind me that I'm finite and imperfect, and so is life. And, that's good. That's enough.
As a human person, I have infinite value but I have limits that should be respected. I'm also not perfect, but I can be complete. I can become complete by embracing that I'm dependent on life's source, the whole earth, and others to sustain my body, mind, and soul.
The "freedom" of American capitalism and consumer culture force another religious path. They drive me to obsessive self-focus, self-interest, self-fulfillment, and self-improvement in order to earn my personhood and be free. But, in truth, fulfillment is not ultimately in wanting, having, or being more. It's in wanting what I have. It's in sharing what is mine. It's in being what and who I am.
I awaken to that truth when I feel the ashes on my head and dirt between my fingers. I awaken to that truth more deeply and sustainably when I give something up for Lent, and face my own dependence, finitude, and death. This kind of awakening changes my relationship with myself, the stuff of my life, and others. Most importantly, it awakens gratitude and a new perspective. Minimizing myself and my wants changes my spiritual and mental focus.
Ash Wednesday and Lent are what repentance was supposed to be about: a change of habit, change of mind, change of heart, and change of life.