Here you are, it is Ash Wednesday and you have just confessed your sins – corporately, of course. You go away with a black or grey smudge of a cross on your forehead, and if you are even remotely like me you will feel a bit strange in the crowd with this mark. Some may even wipe it off as soon as they have come out of church. This signing in the shape of the Cross is accompanied by the words: “Remember that you are dust and to dust you shall return. Turn away from your sin and be faithful to Christ.”
Can you think of reasons why it is important to be reminded now and again that we shall not live forever?
We certainly know on a logical level that we shall all pass away some day. Many have tried to find out where we go, but I like the explanation given by John O’Donohue in Anam Cara best. He says that at birth you appear out of nowhere, and at death you disappear to nowhere. That means we then are in the company of God.
The commission that goes with the ashing gives a clue to the object of the Lent Journey I have in mind: that we may become more authentic followers of Christ, grow and stretch to increase our capacity of being and acting human. It is a little bit like starting long distance hiking. In the beginning you may be sore but, as you work through that, you will gain energy, strength and stamina. All that is required is that one single step to set you on the road.
Usually after Ash Wednesday we continue our ordinary lives, and sometimes giving up something pleasurable or addictive for forty days may become 'The Fast'. Some Christians have suggested that, instead of giving something up during Lent, it would be a good idea to take up something special like being particularly generous in giving, being more polite than usual, or helping elderly ladies to cross the road. Why would you stop there?
Looking at the Bible you may find that the Lent journey is much more than that. It begins a very long time ago with the wanderings of the Israelites in the wilderness for forty years. Here they became a nation and learned to follow and trust the God who loved them unconditionally, in spite of all their transgressions and demands. Thousands of years later Jesus appears on the scene, and the first event in his ministry was a call by the Spirit of God to spend forty days of fasting in the wilderness (Matth. 4:1). St Matthew even says that the purpose wasto be tempted by the devil. What does this say about the Lent experience in the twenty first century? Obviously we cannot all travel to some remote place, sit in the desert, and eat and do nothing.
What this desert retreat has quite obviously done for Jesus was to give him a closer intimacy with God and greater clarity about how to exercise his ministry. It was not to be a ministry of power display, selfishness and material gain. Instead he was called to become a truly humble human being and so present to us the Face of God. Like the wandering Israelites he learned to trust God more, and follow God’s leading in a way which was completely different from the ideas and values of the world. Faith is another word for trust, and the dictionary suggests that faith involves confidence in and loyalty to someone or something. This can be applied to many situations in everyday life: from political principles to a beloved spouse, to the company you work for or the brand of chocolate you eat. Who, or what, is the most important object of your loyalty and love?
Most people work Monday to Friday, nine am till five or seven pm, and don’t have much leisure time. On the other hand, if you love someone human you want to spend time with that person. God is just like this. His Spirit is calling you to spend time with him. What would happen if you listened and followed during this Lent? Of course I am not in the position to make any promises, but perhaps you are in for a surprise. There are probably as many ways of achieving this closeness with God as there are people, however the most important component of any listening is to become quiet. How can anyone hear God while talking at him constantly and making demands which often sound like a child’s wish-list for Santa? Like Jesus we need a time of re-ordering priorities and emptying the busy mind to make space for the Holy Spirit of God.
Wilderness has of course many connotations. You may think of endless sand, desolate stony landscapes, and perhaps stormy seas. These are exterior images of harsh environments, but, there are also interior deserts and stumbling stones to overcome such as loneliness, emotional habits and damaging lifestyle choices, to name just a few. Often we do not see them until we stop and look. There are many ways to avoid confronting these things, such as being too busy, consuming excessive entertainment, talking too much, always complaining, buying unnecessary things or eating too much.
Again Lent is an opportunity to find out where we have left God’s way and indulged in our own or the world’s way of thinking or acting. It can really become an adventure trek to find out things about your own person, and then search for other trails and ways of more peace and beauty. When someone goes walking or hiking in unfamiliar territory they need the proper equipment and provisions. The same is true for the Lent journey: Bible, times of stillness, and an attitude of humility may be the most important of provisions you can ever have. Who knows – maybe you like it so much that Easter is just the fork and not the end of the road.