The wheel of the year continues to turn. The Sun is shifting in the sky and the journey of the Son shifts. We’re headed into the season of Lent. This might have some familiar flavor, but I think it’s nice to come back and revisit the things we already know. We change and the way we look at things changes. And there will be some new flavor for a new year.
Lent begins this week, on Ash Wednesday. Lent comes from the Old English lenten which means “to lengthen”, representing the lengthening days of the sun as spring arrives. It’s a season of prayer and letting go, sometimes of penance and renunciation, even death, before the moment of hope and rebirth.
Ashes will always in some way represent a letting go, death, and perhaps rebirth. Ashes to ashes and dust to dust. Most often the palms of the previous year’s Palm Sunday are used to make the ashes. The palms represent the triumphant entry of Jesus into Jerusalem. The ashes reminds us that triumph was quickly followed by defeat and crucifixion.
Ash Wednesday is a time to cleanse the soul. The ashes represent penitence and our own mortality. After the ashes are shared, some will keep the ashes on to “bring faith into the world”. Others will wash the ash off to represent a cleansing away of sin, of letting go. (aside reminder that even though we have made a big thing out of sin, the word itself comes from an archery term that simple means: “missing the mark”, perhaps we can just notch another arrow and aim/try again – this something we should probably come back to and talk about in the future). The ashes remind us of four things: death, sadness for sin, change of self for the better, and a reminder that God’s breath is our life. Without breath, we are just dust.
We head into the forty days of Lent, which will end on Holy Saturday (there are some variations on this: sometimes it will end on Maundy Thursday or the Easter Vigil). And a reminder, if you’re wondering, Sundays don’t count in the forty days.
This time represents the forty days that Jesus spend in the desert being tempted by the devil. Our sacrifices and discipline at this time pay homage to Jesus’s fight with temptation. It is a time of fasting from food and waste. A time of fasting from festivities. It is a time of deep prayer and almsgiving. It is common to give up a vice or to offer time and money to charity or good work.
Fasting “rules” will vary. Some will give up meat on Ash Wednesday and the Fridays of Lent. Some will only exclude only fleshy meats, but will include fish and dairy. Others may fast every day from sunup to sundown or eat only one full meal a day with stricter fasting on the Ash Wednesday and Good Friday. Some will do a full fast one day a week. It varies. And it’s important when considering fasting to know you own constitution and stamina. Sometimes, fasting isn’t healthy, even spiritual fasting, and should be modified. If you’re one who is worried that you’re supposed to fast,or abstain for God and aren’t sure about what I just said: even the Archbishop Desmond Tutu and the Dalai Lama modify their fasts for health reasons. There are many ways to fast for God. If it’s not healthy for your body, and takes away from your ability to heal or do good work in the world, I think that we might not be serving God the way we would like.
So, what’s with Fat Tuesday? It is the last hurrah before the season of fasting and shedding and letting go. It’s gotten a little wild and crazy, but traditionally began as Shrove Tuesday. Since Lent is a season of fasting from food and waste, there might have been a lot of food that would not keep for 40 days. Shrove Tuesday was the day to use up all the perishables like milk, fat, and eggs (the perfect ingredients for pancakes, hence Pancake Tuesday). Then it became a time to eat and indulge and party, before the abstinence of Lent.
Shrove means to “absolve”. Shrove Tuesday is a time to let go (confession, perhaps; maybe those non serving emotions: worn out anger, old grudges, clinging of grief, maybe it’s a time for forgiveness…). Tuesday, or these first few days of the new week, are a good time for self examination and self study before entering a time of discipline.
Discipline. Perhaps you have no interest in partaking of a Lenten sacrifice or a Lenten act of self discipline. Perhaps you think it’s something that belongs in the Catholic Church and not here in our Community Church. That might be very true, I’m not arguing that anyone should do anything that doesn’t feel right for them.
I simply want us to reflect on why we might engage in a Lenten practice. And maybe something will resonate…and maybe not.
Over time we begin to disconnect and perhaps settle into habitual behaviors that no longer serve. Perhaps you like to pray or practice mindfulness each day and haven’t been. Perhaps you have lost touch a bit with what your faith means to you. What kind of person you want to be. What charities you like to support. Where you spend you money (where you spend your money is how you use your energy). Maybe you’ve forgotten to take care of your temple, this body and breath that God gave to you, and a daily practice of discipline would serve as a reset (we do accumulate excess through the winter with less movement and more of those wonderful comfort foods and happy feasting holidays).
Maybe it’s to connect to Grace. Maybe it’s to connect to what matters. Maybe it’s to reestablish practice and discipline. Maybe it’s to let go of what doesn’t help you serve your greatest concerns.
I talked last year about how I would give something up for Lent (often not going as well as I would have liked), but the practice of giving something up is a ways of confronting temptation. We think about Jesus and his sacrifice and struggle with the devil. What happens when we allow ourselves to feel hunger and need during Lent? We think of those poorer and more in need than ourselves. We connect to others. What happens when we don’t live up to our expectations and commitments? We learn about ourselves and connect to ourselves. We learn where we “miss the mark” and we think about what it means to break commitments to ourselves, others, and even God.
It’s about growth and Grace. Remember that guilt and shame disconnect us: from ourselves, others, and God. It’s not about being perfect, it’s about practicing, learning, and witnessing. And starting again. Not next year, but now, in the next moment. Yes, the next moment, otherwise you teach yourself that if you “miss the mark”, you get a reprieve for the next however many hours…and you are likely to begin to “miss the mark” earlier and earlier each day…
Maybe sacrifice isn’t your leaning this year. Sometimes, I think we’re stuck on sacrificing during Lent. And perhaps you’re not in the right condition to be depleting your body more (fasts are not for everyone–especially the ill or stressed). Perhaps a daily practice of discipline would nourish your relationship to Grace more. Perhaps you need to bring more Grace in, rather than sacrificing. We like to deprive ourselves. We do. And over push ourselves. It’s true. I fear that we can get so caught up in forms of sacrifice that it’s more self torture, this practice that we don’t deserve and self loathing versus a practice of loving God. We also, in sacrifice, it can become another form of competition, pushing ourselves beyond our limits and not listening to that inner voice. I’ll just say that competing, even on a subtle level, for Lent is not exactly the intention. The intention is to bring us close to Grace…listen to your inner voice. Not the one saying ‘eat the cookies’, but the one that’s under that, a little calmer, the one that’s thinking beyond I love cookies (whatever your cookies are). The one that says Pause and Find Grace. The one that says: you matter, you life matters, and you are part of this story. Yes, that one.
We have three days before Ash Wednesday. What sort of practice could you do for forty days that would bring you closer to God? Giving up something to connect to Jesus’s temptation and sacrifice? Committing to a daily practice of devotion? Studying something that brings you closer to Grace? Offering back time and money to something close to your heart? Maybe it’s simply sitting daily in a spiritual meditation or prayer. Maybe it’s remember what you are grateful for each day before bed. Maybe it’s setting an intention each day to be the best version of yourself.
Maybe it’s reading one book that is spiritually uplifting. Maybe it is giving up the chocolate. Maybe it is to test yourself with temptation and desire to feel the struggle within.
I like to think of this time in the cycle as a time to come back to ritual and resetting and cleansing for God. What, if anything, during this time would help connect you closer to Spirit and Grace?
Whatever it is, a gentle reminder that it’s not about guilt and shame…that brings us away from God. Success or failure…it’s about what you learn along the way if you’re willing to dig in and witness the process. And if you “miss the mark” begin anew…this is, after all, a time of new beginnings and new life; Embrace it.
If you need support, this is your community, we’re all here to help one another. That is God’s Grace on Earth.