This year I’m observing Lent for the first time.

For most of my Christian life – over thirty years, in fact – I’ve attended Pentecostal churches. Seasons on the church calendar like Lent and Advent barely register on the radar of Pentecostal and other non-traditional churches. However, we’re now transitioning into a local Anglican congregation. What this means in practice is that we’re also still going to our former Pentecostal church every few weeks to keep our daughter company. (Going to both a Pentecostal and an Anglican church makes for some interesting contrasts, I can tell you!)

Anyway, this means I have the opportunity to experience some of the more ancient practices of the church in ways that I’ve never even been aware of before. Thus my observance of Lent.

In brief, Lent is a period running up to Easter during which Christians focus specifically on prayer, repentance, self-denial and charity. It generally begins on Ash Wednesday and ends on Holy Saturday (the day before Easter Sunday), though there are variations depending on which branch of the church you belong to (Roman Catholic, Orthodox or Protestant). This period is intended to commemorate the forty days Jesus is said to have spent in the desert before commencing his public ministry. It is essentially an opportunity to quiet the voice of the ego or the “false self” (what the Apostle Paul often referred to as “the flesh”) and allow certain behaviours and/or thought patterns to die so that the Spirit can breathe new life in their place.

I need to clarify what I mean by “observing Lent”. For more orthodox believers, the only way to properly observe Lent is to undertake a significant fast every day except Sunday for the whole Lenten season. (The Eastern Orthodox church calls this “The Great Fast”.) For many people, including me, this is either too much of a stretch or not something they feel compelled to do. A popular alternative is to eliminate or significantly cut down on one or more regular activities. This is the route I’ve taken. I’ve identified one activity that I want to abstain from completely for Lent and another that I want to significantly reduce. What those areas are doesn’t matter; what matters is that laying them down involves some degree of effortful self-denial.

But there’s another aspect to my observance of Lent, and that is repentance.

I had already decided a few days before Ash Wednesday what I wanted to give up for Lent. Then, as Ash Wednesday approached, I found myself becoming aware of many areas – both big and small – in which I habitually think and/or act in ways that are either less than healthy and helpful or downright unhelpful or destructive to myself or others. I resolved to intentionally be more aware of some of these areas and to try, with God’s help, to repent of them – to turn away from them – during Lent.

So far, so good.

On Wednesday, to mark the beginning of Lent, we attended an Ash Wednesday service at the Anglican church. This was something totally new to me, and I found it very moving and beautiful. There were elements of the liturgy that were almost identical to the Sunday eucharist, but there was also a much greater focus on penitence. For me, the most meaningful part of the service was a practice known as the imposition of ashes. Basically, you go up to the front and the presiding priest applies some dampened ashes to your forehead in the shape of a cross. As he does this, he recites the following words (or some variation on them):

Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.
Turn from your sin and be faithful to Christ.

I found this incredibly meaningful and sobering, to a degree that surprised me. Let me try to explain why.

You see, before the service I was already serious about Lent… or so I thought. But after the imposition of ashes, I realised that I had up to that point been considering Lent as a kind of sensible, rationally thought-out exercise that might be of some practical and spiritual benefit. Being marked with the sign of the cross shattered that perception and brought a whole new depth of meaning and significance to Lent. It made it not so much about what I do as about who I am.

Even though I washed the ashes off later that same evening, in a way it’s as though I can still feel the mark of the cross on my forehead. When I’m tempted to slip into an old habit that I’ve committed to repent of, I’m quickly reminded that my life is marked by the cross of Christ. I don’t mean that in the sense that I feel Jesus tapping me on the shoulder and saying, “Come on now, you promised to be good!” It’s more that having been physically marked in that way has brought a heightened awareness of the destructiveness of selfishness and sin, and a greater desire to follow in the way of Christ.

And I suppose that’s the key point: rather than being the one time of year when we try to “be good” and to repent of our wicked ways, Lent is a powerful reminder of how we, as followers of Christ, are meant to live all year round. We are to live as those who hearts and lives have been powerfully marked by the cross of Christ.

So far, then, Lent has felt like a significant time for me. I can feel things happening inside that I haven’t felt for a while. What’s surprised me is the power of that one symbolic act – the imposition of ashes – to shift things from the purely rational level down into the realm of the heart. Of course, the cross is a symbol with which we, as Christians, are very familiar. But rarely is it symbolically applied to our very flesh.

This has also got me thinking about communion in a slightly different way. I have a greater appreciation for communion now than I’ve had for years, mainly because it’s taken on a whole new theological significance for me. (You can find some of my previous thoughts on communion here, here and here.) But after Ash Wednesday, I realise that I’ve largely still been thinking of communion as a momentary event that has something to do with cleansing – which is to say, I suppose, much as I don’t like to admit it, as some kind of transaction with God. But what if, like the imposition of ashes, communion were not just a Sunday ritual but a symbolic reminder, partaken of with our very flesh, that we are those who have broken the body of Christ and yet received the blood of his forgiveness and peace? As I receive the bread and the wine tomorrow, with the mark of the cross still invisibly imprinted on my forehead, I think it will feel even more deeply meaningful.

[ Image: Matthew Doyle ]