Today is “Ash Wednesday,” the beginning of the most serious season in the Church’s year: the forty days, not counting Sundays, leading up to Easter. We call the season “Lent.” For non-native speakers of Christianity, here are a couple of vocabulary lessons:
Lesson 1: “Lent” comes from a medieval English word meaning “Spring,” from source words meaning “long” — as in how the days grow during that season; the Church’s springtime period of self-examination and penitence preparing for Easter.
Lesson 2: “Ash Wednesday” is the first day of Lent when one is marked with ashes, usually from palms, and hears the humbling words “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.”
I suspect that to the outsider Spring sounds nice but the ashes are a little wiggy.
As an insider I’ve always found it a tad odd that Christians wear their ashes all day when the Gospel reading always includes Jesus’ words
And whenever you fast, do not look dismal, like the hypocrites, for they disfigure their faces so as to show others that they are fasting…” (Matt. 6:16)
Nevertheless I love the day, ashes and all, and I love having a season to reflect on my life, mortality, and discipleship.
I love these things despite my Reformed heritage. Calvin wanted nothing of such practices, at the very least because they were rituals without any biblical mandate — unlike hearing the Word, praying, singing, and receiving the holy sacraments.
And I suspect the Reformers would disapprove strongly to my plan to blog on the Heidelberg Catechism today and throughout the season of Lent — a season which they did not support or celebrate. (I started blogging on this widely loved and widely used summary of the Christian faith in its 450th anniversary year, and I’m still at it.)
Here is the deal: the Reformers did not like Lent, but they were all over the things Lent is actually about.
And that is why Lent and the Catechism become a mash-up on my blog. Lent gives me a perfect season to write about parts of the Catechism that are otherwise hard for people to swallow today:
Few in our culture want to take up those topics, but I’ll tell you two secrets:
- These issues are part of basic biblical Christianity.
- These things are actually the gateway to life in Christ.
Lent is a season to take a good hard look at our lives — even the parts we don’t like to think about. Lent is a time to tell the truth to ourselves and to God.
In the Heidelberg Catechism this is all about “repentance or conversion.” A year ago I wrote about the basic definition of these things: repentance is both a death and a rebirth. Last December I posted on the new birth.
Next time I post I’ll look at the really Lenten part of this — the death to the old self that is so paradoxically joyful. And then for the rest of Lent I’ll be posting on traditional practices of self-examination and passages of Heidelberg that diagnose what we find inside ourselves.
It is all about seeing clearly, and telling the truth, so that we can find life in Jesus Christ. As Jesus himself put it,
… you will know the truth, and the truth will make you free.” (John 8:32)
And yes, I wipe the ashes off after the service.
I’d love to hear from you in the comments: What do you think (and feel) about Lent?
Do you have any practices that make Lent a richer time in your spiritual life?
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