by Chuck DeGroat
“What kind of cult is that?” I heard her say, whispering to her friend.
I was eating with some friends in a San Francisco restaurant after the Ash Wednesday service. The ashes which had been imposed on our foreheads were still fresh. My friend’s ashen cross was perfect, because I had done it. As one of the pastors at City Church, I took pride in my precision. Some of my colleagues were not as obsessive and perfectionistic as me. And so, a few others had obscure markings on their foreheads, prompting wonder and confusion from the onlookers. It didn’t help that I still wore my clerical collar. I was being pegged as the cult leader.
“It’s Ash Wednesday,” a friend replied to the onlooker.
“Ass Wednesday?” she said. They all started laughing.
Why is it that many of us will go to worship services around the globe on Wednesday and receive the imposition of ashes? Why Lent at all? Maybe you’re from a tradition that celebrates it, but it feels like an altogether too-somber holiday where people lavish in guilt and give up chocolate and alcohol. Maybe you’re church doesn’t celebrate Lent, but it seems like a convenient church-sanctioned 40-day weight loss program. Maybe you’ve always done it, but it’s a bit of a ritual and it’s lost its meaning.
Lent comes from the Old English word Lencten, which means springtime. In this season, we begin to see the goodness which emerges from the darkness of winter. The ground thaws. The days lengthen (sounds like Lencten, right?). Out of death comes life as flowers begin to bloom.
You see, it’s a metaphor for our lives. We all need a thaw every now and then. Burdened by relentless schedules and hamster-wheel existences, it seems like we’re always moving and rarely in touch with the depth beneath. Stuck in patterns of shame and guilt, we fail to thrive. Numb to our heart’s longings, we live at the frozen surface of life, just surviving.
Ash Wednesday opens us to the possibility that something more is available to us. It invites you to listen to the whisper of God trying to break through all the noise of life saying, “You were made for so much more!” Frederick Buechner puts it this way: Christ’s love sees us with terrible clarity and sees us whole. Christ’s love so wishes our joy that it is ruthless against everything in us that diminishes our joy.
The words of Ash Wednesday may not sound joyful – You are dust and to dust you shall return. But they are an invitation to joy precisely in this regard – they are an invitation back to the goodness of your God-given, God-created, God-redeemed lives.
You see, you’ve been living a few feet off-the-ground, working hard to be enough and do enough. And God says – You Are Enough – just as I created you. You are enough, in Christ, the one who became human to invite you back to your humanness, to the humble soil of your life. You are enough, in me. Christ goes to the Cross to show the extent of his love and commitment to you. He longs for this to be a season of rest, of surrender, of enjoying being the beloved.
Lent invites us to see how each and every one of us listened to the serpent in the Garden when he whispered, “Surely you can be like God.” We all want to be like God. We want to transcend our human limitations. We want to be all and do it all. And we never quite feel like we are. So, God invites us in Lent to root out whatever diminishes our joy. That sign imposed in ashes on your forehead is a way of saying, “Here is who you really are.” We can die to whatever diminishes our joy and be freed to new life. When Christ is raised from the dead on Easter Sunday, we’re all invited into that same newness…in fact, we’re guaranteed that same newness. Unending life and joy. Unending enoughness, in Jesus.
If this sounds like a journey you’d like to be on, find a church on Ash Wednesday and join many other Christians around the world as we enter into this life-giving season. And if you’re interested, join me and others as we read a book I recently wrote – Falling into Goodness: Lenten Reflections – which invites us further into this extraordinary goodness of our God-given, God-created, God-redeemed lives.
Chuck DeGroat teaches pastoral care and counseling at Western Theological Seminary in Holland, Michigan. You may order Chuck’s Falling Into Goodness: Lenten Reflections on Amazon.