Ash Wednesday

by Richard on February 21, 2007

Lent is here. It’s a long season, all the way from Ash Wednesday to Easter that does not exactly inspire many modern day Christians. In this fast moving world, we lack the patience for a season of such length. We prefer the one day beano, like Christmas, Easter, or (at a pinch) Pentecost. Sometimes we might actually stretch it out to a three day holiday weekend, but an observance lasting forty days and forty nights, like Lent, is almost beyond imagining.

Giving up chocolate, or some other pleasure, is the focus of Lent for many - 40 days of misery so that we can feel jolly at Easter. There are 2 problems with this. The first is that at Easter we ought to be celebrating much more than the end of a long period of self-imposed privation. Second, it misses the essential point that Lent is principally about reflection and repentance.

To “repent” means to change direction, to alter course, to change one’s mind. The conventional understanding involves drawing up a list of ones foibles and sins…then, trying to cross those sins off the list one by one. Yes, I’ll surely try to give up smoking; I’ll try to lose weight; I’ll try to be more concerned about the hungry and the homeless; I’ll go to church every Sunday; I’ll even try harder to be merciful to my least favourite people. The problem is, we usually find, after an effort at moral reform, that the sins come back all the more healthy than ever: lots of chocolate cake and ice cream, deep resentment about the flaws of certain people, terrific self-indulgence. That’s the problem with the moralistic approach to repentance. If we approach this season with the idea of routing out all that is evil in our lives, pumping ourselves up to a pitch of virtue and good will, we’re likely to find that the bubble of our virtue bursts soon after the season of our reform has past, and the vices come back on with a vengeance.

Instead of approaching Lent from a moralistic perspective, we should perhaps reflect upon the true meaning of repentance. This is the season for exploring the mysteries, a time for looking beneath the surface and examining our own motives and desires, asking ourselves where we are headed. What in the world makes us tick? Where does our real commitment lie? If we are brave enough, this can be a time for pushing beyond the conventional wisdom, for re-examining traditional understandings and finding fresh new perspectives on our faith. Rather than trying to “pick off” individual sins, true repentance is about orientating the whole of our life together - individual, church and society - in a “God-ward” direction, seeking the mind of Christ who “did not consider equality with God as something to be grasped, but made himself nothing, taking the very nature of a servant” (Phil 2:6,7). So repentance is not about self-improvement, still less is it self-indulgent. True repentance directs us to the needs of others as surely as a compass needle is drawn to point north and is more about joy than misery.

{ 4 comments… read them below or add one }


katie 02.21.07 at 8:10 am

thanks for your post! i like to think of jesus’ time in the wilderness as his time of discernment. lent is, indeed, a wonderful time to discern god in our lives and to seek new ways to grow in faith and love. i appreciate your words.


Graham 02.21.07 at 4:26 pm

Very challenging stuff! Couldn’t agree more with everyhting you’ve said. A timely reminder that has made me reconsider giving up chocolate and reassess my priorities


Brian 02.23.07 at 3:24 am

Amen to that. I really liked your post.

But I’m still giving up some of my foibles.

I’m not sure if the Methodists do the same readings as Catholics, but I love the Ash Wednesday gospel with Jesus warning us not to look sullen and obvious when we fast … immediately followed by ashes which are a very external sign of our fasting.

The truth there seems to me to be wrapped up in paradox. What I take from that is that what we do is largely irrelevant, but where our heart is at is a much more important thing. There is a temptation to boil Lent down to a list of things to do and to not do, but the real question in all that is whether all this doing and not doing is leading us closer to God and closer to who we want to be.

And I completely agree that there is a self-indulgent side of it, and I am sure I will fall prey to it more than a few times in the coming days. But I love the fact that it is possible to give something up for 40 days and then look back and see whether it was really a big negative in our lives.

For very personal reasons this hits close to home this season, but it strikes me a lot as similar to rehab. You get a focused time away from some vice. It is certainly true that when you get out there is a decent chance of relapse and being worse than you started, but hopefully in your time away you had at least a couple moments of clarity to bring forward. And if not, we know we will be entering rehab less than 11 months later again and maybe next time we’ll kick the habit for good.



Pamela 02.23.07 at 4:22 pm

I’m reading a book at the moment which seems to focus very much around this theme, withouth really meaning to, i think.

It’s called ‘Finding Sanctuary’, and i cant for the life of me remember who wrote it, but it;s wonderful. The most thought-provoking read i’ve found in years. And i’m only on chapter three!

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