Some of us grew up in traditions that observed Lent and Ash Wednesday, some of us grew up in spaces that skipped most of that and went straight to Resurrection Sunday (Easter).
In the church calendar, Lent is the time between Ash Wednesday and Easter (we mark it as 40 days because Sundays are not a part of Lent ... every Sunday is a "little Easter.") Forty is an important number in the Holy Scriptures - think of the 40 days and nights of the Great Flood, the people of Israel who wandered in the wilderness for 40 years, the 40 days Jesus spent fasting in the desert as he began his ministry). And Lent comes from the Old English word for "lengthen" ... the time in the spring of the Northern hemisphere when days get longer.
Christian churches have traditionally observed Lent as a time of prayer and penance in the days leading to Holy Week ... it's a replication of Jesus' withdrawal into the wilderness - which, in the end, led to clarity of self and purpose.
Ash Wednesday marks the beginning of Lent - February 26th this year. Traditionally, followers of Christ are marked on their foreheads with the sign of the cross in ashes made of the palms from the previous year's Palm Sunday.
The words used in the ritual of the ashes are something along the lines of "remember that you are dust and to dust you shall return." Ash Wednesday reminds us of our mortality - that death is a part of life. In a culture that is largely grief avoidant, Ash Wednesday puts it front and center: inviting us to consider our finiteness, the reality of grief, the cycle of life that necessarily includes death, and the way we touch the transcendent.
I am fond of the bodiliness of this church season - the reminder that we are human - Earth and stardust. I think of the holiness of dust - the dirt that the Creator made all things from. And I think of all the human ashes I have felt slip through my fingers as I have returned my own loved ones and members of the congregation to the holy earth. This time reminds me both of my one wild and precious life - and of the resurrection of all things in the springtime of the year. The daphne coming back year after year is enough to convince me of the second coming - and the third, and the fourth, and the fifth ...
Lent is a time for marking reality - life as it truly is. Grief and hope. Light and darkness ... always both/and.
I hope you will be in church this Lenten season - your presence on our communal journey will make a difference to someone, maybe even you.
- Pastor Jennifer Butler