Lent is my favorite part of the historic Christian calendar. It starts with Ash Wednesday, the reminder that we came from dust and to dust we shall return. A smear of ashes on our foreheads accompanies us that day, a prompt to penitence every time we see our reflection. Then we launch into 40 days of reflection and deprivation, mirroring the story of Christ’s temptation to darkness in the desert.
We give up something — sugar, coffee, alcohol. Kids typically give up candy. While Mardi Gras and Carnivale are the traditional bacchanalian holiday feasts wherein desire and gluttony are supposedly sated before indulging in 40 days of deprivation and fasting, I’m ready to dive right in without all the beads and cake.
Attending mass on Ash Wednesday is a solemn experience. The church is bare. Parishioners walk with folded hands down the aisle to the altar where the good father dips his finger into a dish of ashes and draws the sign of the cross on the penitent’s forehead. “From dust you came, and to dust you shall return,” he whispers.
Ah, the relief to hear these words! Tension leaves my shoulders, and they drop as a feeling of peace takes over. I can relax, knowing that whatever I do, whatever expectations I meet or most likely do not, I have come from nothing, and will go back to it someday. Knowing that brings liberation. Write or do not write. Work or do not work. We are dust. There is freedom in that.
As humans in our current iteration, we do not live forever. Life can feel furiously fast, but stopping during this season to note our beginning and our end, the Alpha and Omega, allows us a moment to slow down and breathe in our mortality — not with fear, but as a promise that the things we do, our sadness, grief, and happiness are nothing compared to the great expanse of time, God’s love, or the breadth of the universe.
Christ Showed What It Means to Deny Worldliness
Lent lets us live out Christ’s sacrifice in our own small ways. Some people use it to give up pleasures or bad habits. Still others use it as an opportunity to change behaviors that have been plaguing them, such as smoking or excessive drinking.
In the desert, Christ sought his purpose, knowing the path God made for him was one of heartbreak and pain. He had to confront this for himself, to discover if there was any way around it or if he had to take the sins of the world on himself so we sinners could be forgiven. He did.
During the Lenten season, an image comes to my mind often: the devil offering Christ everything — the world, the universe, power, the deepest wishes of his heart — if only Jesus would turn away from God and give up his sacrificial lamb project. And Jesus doesn’t take it.
I imagine the agony of that, having everything ever wanted and the substance of secrets never dared uttered sitting before him, and knowing in his heart he must say no. He does. He turns away from temptation. How does he do it? Could any of us do the same? When want is so strong and desperate, it can be nearly impossible to turn down its fulfillment.
Lent Is a Chance to Stop the Creep of Darkness
After a particularly brutal account of the beheadings of Christians made the rounds on news and social media a few years ago, my father called and asked me why, in the face of immediate and painful death, these men would not renounce God to save themselves, and more, why God would want that. If God is a truly loving God, he asked, why would he want these people to sacrifice themselves in his name?
We couldn’t come up with an answer, other than that the temptation to denounce God would be one of a creeping darkness. In their last moments of life, these men would feel that darkness surround their hearts, and they would be lost.
For most of us here in the United States, temptation to darkness isn’t that easy to identify. It is not a renunciation of everything we believe while we eat bugs in the desert. Rather, the temptation to darkness is a gradual seeping away of the light, a slow and steady leak that drains meaning and love from our hearts until we don’t know what we believe, and we barely care why. It is saying yes to the wrong things and no to the right ones for so long that we don’t know the difference anymore.
But during Lent, we think about it. If we screwed up for the whole year, we can start over. We can allow our sins to blow off us like dust. We can know that no matter how often we have turned away from God, from his joy, and from his love, we can give up our sour ways and try again. We are not so important that we are more than dust, yet in our flawed state of misgiving, degradation, and eagerness to give into temptation, we are still, in all our nothingness, as beautiful and wondrous as mere dust.