I’ve long thought of Ash Wednesday as a “reset” button of sorts.
Which is really just a new way of saying what this day has always been about. From the earliest days of this thing called “Lent,” these next several weeks have been like the church’s “reset” button — a time for those who had been alienated from the church to begin the formal process of reconciliation and being welcomed back into the community at the Easter celebration.
The church’s practice has evolved since then, but Lent has still retained its penitential character — a time to move us outside of ourselves, recalibrating our focus from excessive self-absorption and towards a more intentional focus on what it means to love our God and serve our neighbor.
I’ve come to appreciate Ash Wednesday, and maybe this year especially so, for just this reason. When we’ve barely left the precious few quiet days in the immediate aftermath of Christmas and Advent, life happens: School starts up again. Vacation days from work are over. Previously scheduled appointments that seemed lightyears away in the midst of scaled-back holiday hours stare us in the face. And then there’s all that Lent and Easter stuff to plan. All of a sudden, it’s business as usual. And before long, we find ourselves bogged down in the details and demands of daily life.
So if you’re anything like me, maybe you find yourself greeting this strange, solemn, holy day, this Ash Wednesday, as a welcome relief.
But, if you’re even more like me, you’re probably overthinking how to approach this Lenten season. What should I give up? Chocolate? Wine? Red meat? Facebook? What should I take on? A new devotional? Yoga? One of Pastor Josh’s scintillating small groups that meets at CTK on Fridays at noon, starting March 22?
What happens when our Lenten disciplines — meant to be a “reset” button — start to become a burden themselves and actually become a part of the busyness and self-absorption they’re trying to counteract? What happens when Lenten disciplines just go wrong — done out of sense of compulsion (well, I have to give up something, right?) or overdone in order to prove we’re somehow “spiritual enough” or “good enough” (not unlike the “hypocrites” Jesus calls out)?
So, maybe: Our Lenten practice itself needs a “reset” button.
Maybe this Lent, we can take a cue from Marie Kondo. If you haven’t heard of Marie Kondo, then your Lenten discipline really should start by rearranging your Netflix watchlist. Marie’s show is called Tidying Up — and it is deeply, deeply satisfying to watch. In a single hour-long episode, Marie manages to work her magic to transform even the most disheveled living space into a well-organized, clutter-free oasis. Magical.
Marie’s premise is simple: Pile up all your stuff, and item by item, decide what still “sparks joy.” Those are her key words: Does it “spark joy”? If so, treasure it. If not, toss it.
Now, I’m not suggesting we all need to go home and begin to purge our possessions. But what if we could actually practice Lent like the “reset” button it could be? What if this could be a season of “tidying up”? Of taking stock of what “sparks joy” in us — and then actually practicing those things?
What does a Lent that “sparks joy” look like?
Ash Wednesday offers us something tremendous: the opportunity to call to mind our mortality. Not just to remember our brokenness and sinfulness — though that is important, too. But also to remember that we are human, that we are vulnerable, that we are bodies.
If we take seriously the call to remember that we are dust, then we also have to remember what God does with dust: breathing into us the breath of life. God created us as bodies that need care and nurture. And so during Lent, we can give alms, but we don’t have to give away everything we have to show off how good we are at giving. We can pray, but we don’t have to babble on and on, out loud, to prove how much we love God. We can fast, but we don’t have to starve ourselves to show others how dedicated we are.
What if instead, this Lent, we took seriously the “feast of time” before us: to listen to our bodies, to honor the bodies of others, to care for them and feed them and clothe them, to recall our connectedness to all creation and tend the earth and its creatures, to do the things that make for peace, and to strive after justice?
“Tidying up” — however that looks for you and whatever specific spiritual practices you take on — heeds the call of the prophet Joel to “Return to the Lord, your God,” to move beyond self-absorbed individualism into a more intentional focus on what it means to love God and serve our neighbor.
But our Lenten “tidying up” is also gift, not a burden. As we are drawn more deeply into relationship with others, into the community that God calls us into, we are drawn closer indeed to God:
the One who forms us out of the dust of the earth;
the One who breathes life into us;
the One who abounds in steadfast love;
the One who takes delight in us and desires for us to live.
Above all, cling to this: We are God’s beloved children, and we spark joy for God. Yes, this is a season of penitence and preparation and tidying up. But it’s never about our own effort. This is a time to remember God’s mercy, to be immersed in the renewing waters of the font, to be loved by a God who refuses to let us go.