January was a rough month for me and my family. My first day back after the holidays, I received news that a beloved congregation member passed away. Another member was called home just a few weeks later. I was called to do another funeral for a family in need, and a good friend’s dad passed away. In between all those events, my husband got the flu, and my two sons and I struggled with a stomach bug that didn’t seem to want to end.
I was happy to greet February, even if it has been cold and wet. The underdogs won the SuperBowl, but football has been exposed as so dangerous, many former fans now watch with guilt, or don’t watch at all anymore. More winter is coming. And then… Lent will begin on Valentine’s Day.
Yay? Truthfully, I’m not sure. Many of my pastor friends have made a great deal of Ash Wednesday falling on Valentine’s Day and Easter happening on April 1st. Themes and wordplay on “being fools for love” have abounded on my Facebook feed.
I’m just not sure it matters to me that my holy season falls in between secular “holidays”– although April Fools’ Day is not a holiday in my mind, and Valentine’s Day is… iffy.**
Now, Lent. How about it? I grew up in a non-liturgical denomination, and for almost half of my life, the only people I knew who had ashes on their foreheads were Catholic.
Thankfully, one year in seminary, my friend Felipe dragged me to an Ash Wednesday worship service in the chapel. Rev. Annie Ruth Powell was there, and when it came time to smudge our foreheads, Felipe pushed me along. Annie Ruth took my hands, and told me that I was a child of God who came from the earth. From dust. She smudged my forehead and told me it should remind me of my humanity and my connection to the Earth AND to God, my Creator. It was an incredible profound moment. I felt so human and so divine in that moment. To put it bluntly, I was sold on the holy day, the ashes, Lent– all of it.
I also recall how as soon as service was over, Felipe yanked my arm, spun me around, and wiped off my ashes as I protested. I didn’t want the feeling I’d had in that chapel to end, but Felipe said, “No way, Jennifer. We’re going to lunch.”
As unwilling as I was to have my reverie ended, there was wisdom in his actions as well. What do the common readings of Ash Wednesday remind us? They remind us that during this season where many Christians get “extra observant” or “extra spiritual” we are actually NOT supposed to make a big deal of our practices. We aren’t to be showy or flashy about fasting or praying, but rather keep it in private between God and ourselves.
Instead of looking at Lent as a time to give up chocolate or meat or cursing, or even as a time to “take something on” like more service or generosity, I have come to value it as a time to work on my spiritual life.
Does my spiritual life need work? Oh yes. Of course. Always.
I currently serve a church that isn’t all that “big” on Lent. No Ash Wednesday service– yet. No Pancake Supper on Shrove Tuesday– yet. A fairly paired-down Holy Week. No weekly Soup Suppers with scripture and discussion– yet.
Why do I say yet? Well, from my experiences as both a non-observer and an observer, I can honestly attest to the merit of this time set apart in my spiritual life. I’m not so disciplined on my own, which is why I have always appreciated the practice of Lent in community.
But… as a way of helping my community become more familiar with Lent, I am going to observe and reflect and share. I hope you will, too.
Here is a wonderful article in a similar vein, making a case for observing Lent. I think it is a helpful place to begin.
I’ll see you all on the Journey.
**Not that I don’t love Love. I usually find a day to “squeeze” it in as a sermon topic sometime in February. Love is important. But romance and flowers? They limit our understanding of love and really, in my life, have very little to do with all the things and people I love. Most years, I make a family dinner– which I call a Love Feast– for my boys (of all ages.)