“From dust you have come; to dust you shall return.” These words danced in my mind as I set up tables which would soon be surrounded by high schoolers gorging on pizza. It was Ash Wednesday, and it was right on time.
Lent has a way of interrupting my life. I would even go so far as to say that most years lead up to Lent for me. I suppose that’s the point. Lent says this life is not about me: that the pressure to write a good story with my time on earth is not in my hands, and frankly, it never was. It gives me permission to feel, to take inventory of who I have been, of who I am becoming—but most of all, where I’m going. It’s transformative to know that Jesus knows my pain; that he came and lived among us so that he could feel our pain before he took it all on himself. It gives my soul an anchoring season to agree with the psalmist that, though there may be weeping in the night, joy comes in the morning (Psalm 30:5). My loneliness, my heartache, my unfulfilled dreams are not too much for him. I’d dare to say that yours are not, either.
“Ashes to ashes; dust to dust.” That day, I thought back on my first year as a youth pastor, at just 19-years-old. I had attended my church’s Ash Wednesday service, then scrubbed the ashes off my face in the church-basement bathroom before leading a youth group meeting. I hadn’t wanted to address finitude and endings, because during that season it had been a poignant theme in my life. I’d wanted so badly to sweep the ashes under the rug and imagine a world where my good intentions could save me.
But in looking back to that year, I’ve been able to see a change in myself. I’m slowly learning to embrace Lent; to long for it and ultimately to need it. This year, I tried to think about what I could say to the students so they’d hear this need. I’m not immune to suffering, nor am I immune to one day meeting my life’s end. I wonder what my students have known of loss—of sacrifice; I wonder the same for myself.
Lent is not comfortable, but it is good. When I truly wrestle with what Lent is to be in my life, it feels like a war within me. I truly want and even need Lent, but I want it on my terms. I want to treat it like a diet pill, a get-rich-quick scheme; I want it to do the work and change me without touching the habits of my heart and mind. Lent says, “Not my will, but Yours”—but has any prayer ever been so foreign to me?
But, I needed to remember suffering. I had to choose not to let this season pass me by without my heartfelt dedication. During this Lenten season, I wanted to get better at inviting grief to sit with me, to learn to know it so that whenever it may rear its ugly head again in my life, I would not be afraid of it. Lent gives us permission to do at least that much, because we know what is coming.
Resurrection is looming in our midst—but still, it is not yet here. There’s something about the way that the church comes together to meditate on ashes and sit with the world in its brokenness that is awakening me. I have learned to embrace the breathtaking unfairness of resurrection, but only now that I have learned to sit in faith with loss.
As rich as the season of Lent is for my theology, my sinful nature wants Lent to be sexier, to be flashier, to fill the ever-increasing void in my heart that longs for recognition from my peers. I like to pay lip service to giving up pride, but the truth is that I want to post my Lenten fast on Instagram. I want to pretend I’m fasting from greed, but my heart is still overcome with jealousy when I see my mentor consoling someone who is not me. My spirit longs to fast from bitterness and resentment, from grudging and prejudices—especially against those who have waged war on my identity. Sometimes I find that this season can feel more like a second chance at a New Year’s Resolution, but with some spiritual extra credit. But, if anything can cleanse me from myself, it has to be Lent. It has to be ashes.
I need Lent, because Lent says that I am His, body and soul, in life and in death, even when my hosannas have turned to ashes. It reminds me that Jesus wept in the garden so that I could feast in Zion. Lent is not about me, but it is for me. New life is on the horizon, but it is made sweeter by the embrace of the unplanned. Like Jesus in Gethsemane, may we be given grace to welcome that which we would not choose, in this season and in all of our days.