Get ready to see a peculiar sight this coming Wednesday. You’ll likely note a smudge of dirt on the guy serving up your coffee or the woman working in the next door office. They didn’t forget to shower; it’s not ink from their newspaper. It’s Ash Wednesday which begins the season of Lent, and for many Christians they enter this season receiving the mark of the cross, smudged on their forehead with an ash-oil mixture. Lent is the 40 day season of penitence, prayer, passion and preparation (that’s some crazy alliteration) to walk with Christ towards the cross and welcome the resurrection.
Below is the introduction to Lent from my daily prayer book Seeking God’s Face.
Lent carries almost too much religious baggage with it for some people, popularly understood as a season of joyless custom and duty. How then do we keep the gospel front and centre in this season of shadows? The cross keeps our gospel focus clear. Lent is a season to journey with Jesus in his passion, to survey the cross, taking the measure of Christ’s love in his suffering and death.
Beginning on Ash Wednesday, Lent is the forty-day season leading up to Easter. (If you count all the days, there are more than forty, but the Sundays are not counted as part of Lent, as they are resurrection celebrations held throughout the season.) It begins with the stark reminder that “from dust you have come and to dust you will return” and leads toward Jesus’ final week, marked by Palm Sunday and stopping short of the resurrection celebration of Easter morning. Ashes are a good emblem of Lent, a picture of our own mortality and spiritual condition, a sign of Lent’s penitent spirit, and yet a hint of the hope of renewal.
Celebration isn’t the word to use for our participation in Lent. It is a somber journey of spiritual preparation and renewal, marked especially by repentance and prayer. In our pain-averse culture, Lent stands apart by not shrinking away from suffering but cultivating in us the wisdom that growth often (some might say only) comes through suffering. In a time and place of religious freedom, where we mostly don’t suffer for following Christ, Lent invites us to willingly identify with Christ’s suffering through fasting or other forms of self-denial.
The spare and sober nature of Lent is healthy for the heart and true to the gospel, scrubbing away frothy spirituality by calling us to say ‘no’ to ourselves in order to experience a greater ‘yes’ in Jesus. It helps to imprint the form of the cross in our lives, recognizing that the news of the risen Lord Jesus is not good without the way of the cross. Lent prepares us to experience the reality of resurrection joy only by first recognizing the depth of our sin that pinned Christ to the cross.