We begin today a series of weekly reflections through the season of Lent, written by Bobby Gross, who contributed the reflections for this past Advent Season.
I welcome the start of Lent on Ash Wednesday each year. I look forward to it, actually, which might seem odd to those who think of Ash Wednesday as a hangover day after Mardi Gras (Fat Tuesday) and associate Lent with a slightly dour asceticism.
The Church has practiced a version of Lent for over 1,700 years, and in recent decades its observance has spread far beyond liturgical churches such as Roman Catholic, Anglican, and Lutheran. What makes this calendrical tradition so enduring and spiritually efficacious?
When you attend an Ash Wednesday service, you have your forehead marked with a cross-shaped smudge of ashes and hear the words “Remember that you are dust and to dust you shall return.” I explain this in my book Living the Christian Year:
“Dust and ashes. These symbolize two themes at the heart of Lent: our creaturely mortality and our moral culpability. Finite beings and sinful persons….The dust speaks of our bodily dependence and the ashes signify our spiritual penitence.”1
The six weeks of Lent afford us a period for sustained reflection on the human condition, our physical vulnerabilities, and our sinful propensities.
This year Ash Wednesday arrives as the death toll from the Covid pandemic marches toward one million in the U.S. and the nation of Ukraine is under overwhelming military assault by Russian military forces. Sickness. Death. War. Destruction. The human condition dramatized. Not to mention how our society is increasingly riven by racial animosity and political strife and rising crime and raging distrust.
What an apt time to quiet ourselves and inventory our souls before God, remembering his holy condemnation of greed and hate and injustice but also rehearsing his abiding mercy and ready forgiveness.
The longstanding spiritual disciplines of Lent include self-examination and repentance, fasting and abstinence, prayer and scripture meditation, acts of generosity and service. I fast from food one day a week during Lent, which is a baseline practice echoing Jesus’ resistance to temptation while fasting in the desert: “One does not live by bread alone.”
I also ask myself each year: What could I “give up” for a time, something that has too much pull in my life or absorbs too much attention: like alcohol or social media. What could I forego (in full or in part) as a small step of resistance to something that is a potential idol for me: like obsessively reading the news (as though my hope lies in party or president). What could I positively choose to do with my money or my time or my mental energy for these forty or so days?
Such practices deepen our humility before God and our awareness of dependence on him in body, soul, and circumstance. And they slowly prepare us to engage the holy mystery of Good Friday and to receive the explosive joy of Easter Sunday. In God’s economy, such humility leads to elevating grace!
Psalm 90 aptly anchors Lent for me. It opens with an affirmation that our true home has always been in God. The psalmist immediately extols God as Creator of the vast cosmos, declaring the eternality of the One for whom a millennium is but a moment. In contrast, he rehearses our utter mortality and finitude as humans. We are mere creatures of dust who return to dust. Our lives are over before we know it, evaporating like dreams, withering like grass blades.
And we are rightly mortal, sighs the psalmist, because of our sinfulness. He echoes Genesis 3 and the consequences of original human disobedience. As creatures made in God’s own image, possessing moral capacity yet failing so often, we elicit his fierce opposition to all that is unjust and unloving and unholy. So our days are numbered, as we like to say, and our years are marked by toil and distress.
With this awareness of God and of ourselves and from a chosen posture of humility during Lent, we can pray with the psalmist:
“Teach us how to make use of our days and bring wisdom to our hearts.” How can we live wisely and well in bodies that are limited and societies that are torn?
In a series of Lenten reflections over the next six weeks, I will guide us to grapple with some of the often subtle but powerful temptations most of us face, especially the ones that present as cloaked idols. Jesus certainly faced these same “tests,” and we can learn from him.
As we observe Ash Wednesday this week and settle into our chosen Lenten disciplines, let me point out the grace notes embedded in the series of humble petitions at the end of Psalm 90:
Shine your love on us each dawn, and gladden all of our days. Balance our past sorrows with present joys. Let your servants, young and old, see the splendor of your work. Let your loveliness shine on us, and bless the work we do.2
May the welcome soberness of Lent be enlaced with threads of grace that anticipate the Resurrection: the steadfast love of God that redeems our sorrows and makes our lives and work meaningful.
1Bobby Gross, Living the Christian Year: Time to Inhabit the Story of God (IVP, 2009), p. 127-8.
2Translation of Psalm 90 from The Psalter (Liturgy Training Publications)
About the author:
Bobby Gross has spent his career in campus ministry with InterVarsity Christian Fellowship. He currently serves as Vice President for the Graduate & Faculty Ministries division. Originally from Columbus, GA, Bobby and his wife Charlene have lived in Gainesville (FL), Miami (FL), New York City, and now Atlanta. He graduated from UNC Chapel Hill with a B.A. in American Studies and English Literature and did additional studies in theology at Regent College in Vancouver. Bobby served on the national board of Christians in the Visual Arts (CIVA) for six years. Bobby is the author of Living the Christian Year: Time to Inhabit the Story of God. He has also contributed chapters to three other books, including Faith on the Edge (InterVarsity Press) and Signs of Hope in the City (Judson). Bobby has experience in preaching, teaching, and training on a range of subjects including leadership development, vocational stewardship, and spiritual formation. An admitted bibliophile, Bobby also writes poetry and collects contemporary art on religious themes.