This week, the Christian church embarked on the annual 40-day journey known as Lent. Though not observed by all Christians, and certainly not commanded by God, for over a thousand years many Christians have set aside the six weeks before Easter as a time for repentance, quiet reflection, and meditation upon the suffering and death of Jesus Christ.
Lent always begins on a Wednesday. That Wednesday has come to be known as Ash Wednesday. In some churches, ashes are placed (or "imposed") on the foreheads of worshipers, usually in the shape of a cross. But even in churches that do not follow the custom of imposing ashes, the symbolism of ashes is an important part of what that day, and the following six weeks, is all about.
When Adam and Eve first sinned against the holy creator, he informed them that from now on, death would be the consequence faced by all of their descendants. "Dust you are, and to dust you will return," God warned. And so dust and ashes soon became a symbol not only of our mortality, brought on by sin, but also of the sorrow and sadness that sin has caused. In Bible times, people would often wear clothing made out of rough, scratchy sackcloth and smear ashes on themselves as a sign of sadness and repentance.
Really, the 40 days of Lent are 40 days of sorrow and repentance. Not that we go around for the next six weeks with ashes on our foreheads, tears in our eyes, and frowns on our faces. The joy which our faith in Jesus gives us remains undiminished throughout the year. Yet as we contemplate the suffering and death of our Savior, remembering that it was our sins that caused it, we can't help but be saddened. While we remain confident of his love and forgiveness, in the shadow of Christ's cross we are compelled to cast our eyes downward and say, "God have mercy on me, a sinner."
That's not necessarily a popular notion in our society today. Endless fun and continual entertainment seems to be the focus. So to purposely devote time for quiet reflection and genuine sorrow seems jarring and out of place to many. Yet without true sorrow over sin, we can't possibly grasp the incredible joy of forgiveness. Unless we confront our iniquities, we cannot comprehend the pardon and peace our Savior offers to us. Without the ashes and dust of Lent, the joy of Easter is as empty as a chocolate bunny.
Whether or not you attend a church that formally observes the tradition of Lent, take time during these next six weeks to reflect on the cause of death, both ours and our Saviors. Soberly confront the reality of sin in your life. And then, with genuine joy and relief, embrace the forgiveness your crucified and risen Savior earned for you and gives to you.
- Brent Merten is pastor of Mountain Valley Lutheran Church, 802 Brush Creek Terrace, Eagle.