You might be asking why we need Lent. After all, we’ve been through the “lentiest Lent that has ever lented,” as someone said last year. And, in fact, all of 2020 was about as Lenten as we can imagine. Sackcloth and ashes-worthy, tearing of the garments and repenting in the dust; yeah, been there, done that, still wearing what’s left of the t-shirt. And self-reflection? What else were you going to do during the months’ long pandemic and lock-down? Physical distancing brought out a lot of introspection, don’t you think? Yeah, maybe we can give Lent a miss this year.
Except, maybe there is more to Lent than the suffering that we’ve endured. Maybe there is more than the reflection and analysis that we are prone to doing. Certainly, these are tools and techniques, practices that we have used and continue to use to achieve the ends that Lent calls us to claim. But as always, it is the end and not the means that defines the season for followers of Jesus.
So, what is the end of the season of Lent? Why do we have this period of preparation, of fasting and self-denial, of repentance and confession, of putting our spiritual house in order? Simply so that we can be prepared for Easter. Lent is about embracing the Resurrected One with a whole and longing heart.
What we discover as we make those preparations is that there are so many things that get in the way of our true embrace of the risen Christ. Some of those things are external, but many of them are internal. They are habits and preferences and inclinations that clutter our souls. So, the season of Lent comes along to give us space and appropriate reminders that we need to clean house to receive the one we call Lord.
To do this well is both a painful and a fulfilling exercise. That is why we have two titles for this series, or, if you prefer, a title and a subtitle. You are free, however, to place the emphasis where you believe it needs to be for your faith community. Is the emphasis for this season of Lent the rending of our hearts? Or is it claiming the promise? The truth is, we need both: the rending and the claiming. We need to tear out the things that are in the way of truly following Christ, which is not an easy or a simple process. Nor is it something that we can do once and then forget it. It is a constant call for us to “lay aside every weight and the sin that clings so closely” (Heb 12:1). But then we also need to lean into the promise of the kin-dom. We need to claim the life that Christ describes and lives out before us, to embrace the joy of the life of faith.
Lent doesn’t have to be a somber time; but to be effective, it needs to be intense. It needs to be taken seriously and rigorously, and we can bring our full selves to the table. It is worth the strenuous effort, however, as we are enabled to embrace the fullness of the promise of Resurrection and live as disciples of Jesus Christ; disciples who make disciples. So, despite feeling as though we have been in a yearlong season of Lent, we need the season; we need the observance to open us to all God has in store for us. Rend your hearts, so together we can claim the promise.
There is something powerful about a season that starts in the middle of the week, at night (or in the morning, if that is your tradition). It suggests that the Lenten journey is a high calling, not for the faint of heart, not for the casual observer. It requires a level of commitment from the beginning. Issue the call to worship as a reach, a stretch, not as a barrier to access, but as a reminder of the strenuousness of the journey ahead.
The mood is serious, but not oppressive. The ashes remind us of our mortality and our sinfulness, but they don’t crush us to the floor. They are applied with a sense of hope and the confidence in the promise that brings us to this moment. Joel speaks of trembling before the day of darkness at the same time that he speaks of the hope that persists. Let hope have the final word, even over our sin and our fragility. There must be some light of Resurrection that guides our steps, even as we take the first one.
The ashes are the central point of this service. It is an example of the Word enacted. Proclamation stands in service of this enacted word and ought not detract from it. The center of the service is not the preacher or the worship leaders, but the penitent who receives the reminder, which is also a gift.
What about worshiping online? Even if you are fully back to in-person worship, one hopes that the awareness of the increased reach through online platforms for worship has encouraged you to maintain that virtual presence. The first thing to remember is that the imposition of ashes is not a sacrament; therefore, we need not be as inhibited when considering innovative ways of providing the grace of this ritual. Can you have little bags of ashes available for pick up ahead of time or deliver them throughout the parish and community? How could you instruct those considering joining you for the Ash Wednesday service to prepare some ashes for themselves? What works best to make ashes that will leave a mark?
The mark is important. Some have pointed out that Ash Wednesday is one of the few times when we followers of Jesus are marked in a visible way. If your tradition is to do this early in the day, then you are a visible part of the family of God throughout the day in a way that you aren’t usually so visible. Even if the ash is applied in the evening, people can go home and look in the mirror and see the mark. They can know that they bear a visible sign of the need for a savior. It is both humbling and exhilarating. It is both rending of the heart and claiming the promise.
Rev. Dr. Derek Weber, Director of Preaching Ministries, served churches in Indiana and Arkansas and the British Methodist Church. His PhD is from University of Edinburgh in preaching and media. He has taught preaching in seminary and conference settings for more than 20 years.