My first experience with Ash Wednesday came the first Easter season I worked for a Catholic charity. I had been nose-to-the-grindstone all morning and hadn’t really interacted with anyone in the office. When I finally did decide to walk down the hallway for a cup of coffee (what else?), I ran into a co-worker whose forehead bore a smudge of some sort. I mentioned it to him and he smirked and kept walking.
He thought I was being a jokester, when in reality something major was lost in translation. Being a Catholic, he’d just attended an Ash Wednesday service and was wearing the ash smudge the priest had given him. Thankfully, someone gave me a brief primer on the ash smudge and Lent and I went on my merry way. I didn’t give the smudge or Lent much thought again for years, until last year.
As a Protestant, I’d never really observed Lent beyond hearing it mentioned. I vividly remember the palm fronds on Palm Sunday. Each of us little ones would get a branch to stand in the “big people service” and wave as we sang a little song about Hosannah and Easter. And, of course we not only “observed” Good Friday and Easter, those days were a big deal. The quiet reflection, the prayers, the praise, the deep thankfulness of the Easter season was not a time taken lightly in our home; and I’m so thankful for that. But, for whatever reason, Ash Wednesday didn’t make the cut. Which I find strange since I was in church twice on Sundays and every Wednesday night I can remember of my childhood. I mean, we were THERE on Wednesday, why hadn’t I heard about this?
Last year was the first year I really pondered the season of Lent. I’d read a bunch of different articles about the deep soul searching and recommitments being made by some in observance of the season of Easter. Ann Voskamp re-introduced me to Lent through her “Trail to the Tree” devotional and posts on her blog. So until last year, and although I was raised to appreciate and hold dear the sacrifice of Jesus’ life on the cross, I’d never much thought about Easter until the week before Palm Sunday when my mom would start prepping all the little crafts and lessons for her Sunday School class.
I ventured into the season of Lent last year with Ann. I downloaded and printed out her Easter Tree instructions, and actually made one. See?
Throughout the season, as I hung the tags on the tree, I spent some time soul-searching and decided that I, too, would find something in my life that I enjoyed and I would give it up for the 40 days leading to Easter. Whenever I missed that something, I would be reminded of sacrifice. Giving up something I enjoyed didn’t at all compare to Christ exchanging His life for my soul, but it was a practical reminder to re-orient my behavior to the season, to think about the cross when I’d otherwise be enjoying that thing.
The experiment was a success. I really “got it” last year. I feel like I was so much more aware of God during those 40 days – like I wasn’t wandering, but that I was seeking. I learned that in the 7th century Lent was fixed at 40 days as a reminder of the 40 days Jesus fasted in the desert. Those early penitents were sprinkled with ashes, wore sackcloth, and were required to remain apart from the rest of the community until they were reconciled on Maundy Thursday, the Thursday before Easter. That’s a commitment that we modern “penitents” are too soft to make, for sure. But I like the sentiment, the purposing of committing in your heart to set yourself apart in an effort to prepare your soul for whatever God might teach you anew this Easter.
Our church is hosting, I think it’s first, Ash Wednesday night of worship tonight. I’ve been really excited for it. Smacked in the middle of a busy week, it’s extactly the right time to just…stop. I’m flustered with my inability to keep up my housework, to balance our budget, to be who I want to be. Ash Wednesday is the time to spiritually put on the ashes and ask God what He as to teach me this Easter season.
My eternal life was spared because the Creator of Heaven and Earth lowered Himself to become a human, to live a life of ministry and persecution, and then to die a sinner’s death of shame on a thief’s cross. I don’t stop running on my hamster wheel often enough to think about this sacrifice, this gift. I’m more than ready to give God an hour or so of my evening to appreciate, to repent, to recommit, to intentionally seek Him.
It won’t be easy (and I can’t even promise that it will be without arguing) to get our family from work/school, through dinner, cleaned up and in the van to get to church on time tonight. At some point between leaving my office and walking through those doors at church, I am absolutely certain that I will question (maybe more than once) the whole point of bothering with the herding of children on a school night. I’ll feel distracted and tired as the music begins. It’ll likely not feel like a journey worth making tonight, but I have a feeling that joy like I’ve not yet known is in the journey from hectic weeknight to Ash Wednesday service and then on to Easter.
Come, Lord Jesus. Come. Meet us in the harried spaces. Please find us with our weary hearts and our voices lifted. Help us find you as we seek you during this season of Lent. Come.