By Pamela A. Lewis
It seems only a few days ago that I took down my Christmas wreath, put away the elf on the shelf (I know – it’s a bit creepy, but it’s still cute.), and stopped being asked, “So how was your Christmas?” Now the question is, “So, what are you giving up for Lent?”
For those like myself who observe Lent, this is the big question at the start and at the heart of the season. It is a personal and deeply important question, one into which all of one’s values, attitudes towards favorite activities, beliefs and behaviors are tightly wrapped. What one gives up (or takes on, as many now do) during Lent is a personal matter, between the individual and his or her conscience, between the individual and God.
The emphasis on self-reflection of this season is one of the reasons why I love Lent. After the the glittering ebullience of Christmas and New Year’s, Lent takes me inward and calls me to be still. While the holidays can leave me breathless, Lent invites me to catch my breath. In the 40 days that unfurl from Ash Wednesday, I engage in a kind of spiritual house cleaning by taking a hard look at the state of my relationship with God, with others, and with myself.
I recently became aware of a painting called “Ash Wednesday,” completed in 1860 by the German artist Carl Spitzweg. It’s significant, when regarding this work, that the day before Ash Wednesday is known in some cultures as Mardi Gras, French for “Fat Tuesday,” the last day of fun and feasting before the penitential season of Lent.
Spitzweg’s canvas depicts a solitary harlequin, still decked out in his colorful and jolly costume and pointed hat (a fool’s cap perhaps), although the festivities of the previous day are over. But when we look more closely, we realize this figure of revelry and excess, with arms folded and head down, is sitting in what appears to be a prison cell.
A shaft of light comes through the cell’s only window and illuminates the lonely figure, who seems deep in thought. His only sustenance is a jug of water. Every element in the painting forcefully outlines and underscores what a traditional Lent involves: self-reflection about and repentance of the “sins” of excess; fasting and self-denial; (re)encountering God.
This view of Ash Wednesday and Lent is severe, uncompromising, and, some might argue, joyless. Yet it is fully in keeping with those tough, uncompromising words the priest utters when imposing the dark ashes on my forehead: “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.”
This year, however, will be different. In the Diocese of New York, Bishop Andrew Dietsche has directed that, to avoid the risk of further spreading the coronavirus, the imposition of ashes should be suspended.
Although the Book of Common Prayer expresses no particular instructions regarding ashes, other than their imposition by the minister at the liturgy, the physical distribution of ashes on the foreheads of the faithful is an ages-old practice. Many people look forward to it.
I will miss going to my church, walking up its long center aisle to stand before the priest tasked with dipping his thumb into the ashes, with which he then traces a cross on my forehead while pronouncing those ancient and bracing words.
I admit that I will miss the wondering glances of passersby and other subway commuters to that spot above my nose. I – We – will miss receiving that visible sign that identifies me – us – as Christ’s own. But I also recognize that this loss is yet another necessary one we need to count in order to one day reclaim a greater health. Ash Wednesday and the season it inaugurates is concerned with our unseen, rather than seen, appearance.
On Ash Wednesday, Christians are invited to observe a “holy Lent,” a season of penitence and fasting, a season when they take stock of their lives, pray, read, and meditate on God’s holy Word.
This is solemn, not morose work. It is not a 40-day sentence to sport a scratchy hair shirt, to subsist on a diet of locust crunch, and to wear a dour expression to show how deeply repentant one is. That is a soul-killing Lenten observance that only leaves the observer angry and resentful rather than spiritually cleansed and fulfilled.
As for giving up things, there is more to Lent than simply eschewing chocolate, alcohol or caffeine. While that may be a feature for some observers, there is more to the season than food and drink deprivation. For example, pride, anger, bigotry, wastefulness and pollution of the creation, injustice, cruelty, and indifference to the suffering of others are some of the other greater sins worthy of inclusion on the “giving up” list.
As it is impossible to renounce in one Lent all of the wrong things that compromise my relationship with God and others, I select one or two that I feel could benefit from my undivided attention. That can be a lot if those one or two things keep getting in the way of my having a life that is more whole. But if I am fully honest with myself, I will choose the most important wrong things about myself in need of grace-filled repair.
It is the quest for honesty and truth that inspires my love of Lent. Where so much — too much — around us is unreal, inauthentic and falsified, this is a season that requires truthfulness and reality.
At a time where very little is spiritually or morally required of us, Lent urges us to think deeply, like Spitzweg’s harlequin, about our frailties and the world’s and our brokenness. Perhaps that is why, unlike our other seasons or holidays, Lent has escaped commercialism’s grasp. It cannot be prettified, glamorized or bowdlerized, nor can it be fashioned into a consumer item with a price tag. There are no Lent cards to write and send, no decorations to deck the halls.
Finally, what I also love about Lent is that anyone can engage in what this season offers. There is no need to be a Christian or even a believer to adopt some of its practices.
Discovering the benefits of self-reflection, giving our time and talent to something or someone other than ourselves, and thinking and talking about life’s harder sides can be universal, not just Christian, activities. A season that bids us all to participate in such important, life-enhancing activities deserves our love. n
Pamela A. Lewis writes about topics of faith. This article was first published at Grow Christians, www.growchristians.org.