The Lenten Journey

ash-wednesdayToday is Ash Wednesday.  Many of us will go and get ashes placed on our forehead as a mark of something we perhaps haven’t given much thought to.  It marks the beginning of Lent, the season where we give something up, but aren’t really sure why.  Over the past couple of years I have given Lent a lot of thought.  Why do we give things up?  What’s with the ashes?  Why 40 days?  It is important to note that the word “Lent” is found nowhere in the Bible.  There are models for it, however, in Jesus’ temptation and 40 days in the desert, Moses and the Israelites’ 40 years of wandering in the desert waiting to enter the promised land, and Elijah’s 40 days of wondering and worrying about what Jezebel is going to do with him while he is attended by angels and finally meets God on the mountain.  It’s no wonder then that the passage about Jesus’ temptation appears in Mark after Jesus is on the mountain with Elijah and Moses – two guys who wandered and met God on a mountain.  Starting to see a pattern?

Jesus is in the desert when Satan comes to him and tempts him with meeting his own needs by turning rocks into bread.  He is offered a kingdom of his own and to use his special abilities to test his mortality.  THIS, I think, is the essence of Lent: to embrace our humanity and relish everything that it includes – even our own mortality.  I would guess that Jesus did not spend a literal 40 day period of time in a literal desert with a malevolent personage who was constantly tempting him.  I don’t think this is the point.  It seems to me that the point is that we are most tempted in our loneliness.  It is the idle time alone when we can work up the most mischief, but it can also be the best time.  The desert fathers and mothers intentionally sought solace in the farthest reaches of the desert so as to shed distractions and get closer to God and to themselves.

The biggest mark of our humanity is our mortality.  From ashes we have come and to ashes we will return.  Ashes to ashes, dust to dust.  The ashes we have imposed on our foreheads is a symbol and a reminder that sometimes we need to just be.  We don’t need to be this or be that.  We simply need to be mindful of our existence and embrace our humanity and every single breath that reminds us we are alive.  We are also reminded that the breath will not always be there and a time will come when we will return to the dust from which we came.  We have to be able to embrace that, too, because it is an essential part of being human.  We give things up, then, so that we can get rid of our attachments – even for just 40 days – and concentrate on being.  The things that we think will make us happy are usually a barrier to our peace and mindfulness.  After all, Jesus didn’t turn rocks into bread, instead he embraced the hunger as it reminded him of his humanity.

So, what am I giving up for Lent?  I think I’ll give up laziness and complacency.  Hopefully this will mean that I’ll get up a little earlier each day and get a little more done.  Hopefully it means that I will do more writing and embrace those things that make me human a little more deeply.

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One Response to “The Lenten Journey”

  1. John Lovestrand Says:

    I appreciate this explanation, as I have often wondered from afar what the Lenten “season” meant. Over the years as I have heard my Catholic friends mention giving up something from Ash Wednesday to Easter it struck me as, well, trivial — e.g., foregoing a favorite dessert, or beverage. But the above provides a deeper, more introspective meaning, and contemplating our mortality is indeed essential to being human. From what we know thus far, it is what separates us from the rest of God’s creatures we share Earth with. (Descartes: “I think, therefore I am.”)

    While I would like to think that such perspective would be available to us throughout the year, I understand the idea behind a particular catalyst to remind at a given time and to provide a spotlight for a certain period of time.

    We seem better able to focus when allowed a fixed time frame. When coaching kids in youth baseball, I would first leave them to their own devices while playing catch for warmups; then I would gather them together and ask them to play “focused” catch over a “2-minute drill” with stop watch running. Then we would kneel together after and I would ask the boys if they noticed any difference. They just experienced first-hand that when their focus was intensified, their actions responded noticeably, qualitatively better.

    In a spiritual or contemplative sense, the same holds true for the hour spent in Church on a Sunday morning with an inspirational Pastor leading his brothers and sisters along a thought-provoking and soul-searching path. And I would imagine similarly for people of Jewish faith in temple and also for Muslims in a mosque. Or for that matter Buddhists practicing their philosophy.

    I still feel too new to religious awakenings to sincerely pretend to “give up” something for 40 days. But I am mindful of the mortality reminder, and how if I can keep that perspective it will hopefully translate into better thought, feeling and action. I prefer to look at my life as taking something additional on; challenging myself to be better, do better.

    For the first time, last evening, I joined in with family and friends (some old, some new) to help provide a meal for about 90 folks at a shelter in Chicago. Several hours on a Saturday evening over 49 yeas of life does not Mother Theresa make, but it is a start, and it did feel good to help. More than that, it felt good to share that meal with those folks, and I sense that my receptivity to participating was inspired by recent readings (and sermons @ Christ Church of Chicago by Reverend Brandyn Simmons) about Jesus and his table fellowship driven by his core teaching to “be compassionate”.

    Rather than give up something, I prefer to positively (glass half-full) take on some things that are difficult for me to abide by: to listen deeply, to understand, to be more patient, to forgive. Yes, to be more compassionate… .

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