There are some things we almost always say at the beginning of Lent.
For example, that Lent is a time for reflection—introspection.
That it’s a time for learning to live without things, so that we can see more clearly what it is we actually need in order to live as souls before God, our truest, deepest selves.
Tonight, on Ash Wednesday, we are especially urged to ponder the fact of our own mortality.
That’s what the ashes are about.
Of course, you’ll remember that when we receive ashes, we receive them with an admonition.
We always say: “Remember that thou art dust, and to dust thou shalt return.”
There is an urgency to that.
It reminds us that there are some things in our world and in ourselves that we need to turn around, and we don’t have forever to make progress on those things.
It’s also a way of remembering that some of what the world cares about—some of the things it teaches us to focus on, to spend our time doing, to spend our wherewithal building—some of these things don’t stand the test of eternity.
Put under that sort of intense microscope, few things actually do stand up to the test.
In that sense, I’ve always been surprised that we don’t generally read from the Book of Ecclesiastes on Ash Wednesday.
The preacher’s old familiar words that “Vanity of vanities, all is vanity” seem so deeply resonant.
If we spent 40 days taking time on our knees to parse the vanities and the verities of our lives – to ponder the notions and the truths that guide us – we would be really keeping Lent…keeping Lent real…for sure.
But this is a weird year.
Given the last eleven months, how many reminders of our mortality do we need?
How much giving up of things do we still need to do?
I suppose it is a comment on the relative ease many of us have come to expect, but once you’ve had to get creative in sourcing your family’s toilet paper, how important could it possibly seem to give up chocolate for Lent?
In a world where grandparents have had to give up seeing their grandchildren, when spouses can’t even be together in the hospital during a procedure, when brides have to wear masks to walk down the aisle, and so many of the little places we love for our small comforts can scarcely stay afloat—wow—what’s Lent?
The Christian writer C.S. Lewis once described Hell, not as a place of fire and brimstone, supervised by devils with pitchforks.
For Lewis, Hell was more like a dreary English suburb with houses that looked all alike, where the time was that depressing window before sundown on a cold midwinter afternoon just after the shops have closed – except forever.
Who among us can’t picture that right now?
At this point, what could “keeping Lent” possibly add?
I think the answer is, actually, it could add a lot.
Because of the edifice of our own expectations…the structure of our assumptions has crumbled, then the question is what we will seek to rebuild – what is it that will come back differently?
If the isolation and boredom of Corona hit, and all we had to lean on was the pop of a cork at 5 o’clock, what have we learned?
If our relationships have not proven a comfort to us, or if they’ve demanded more from our emotional wells than we have to offer, with little return, what have we learned?
When the institutions we have taken for granted turn out to be far more precarious than we realized, what have we learned?
I think a whole lot of people have found that with everything they’ve been through, they miss God.
They miss a sense of connection to the guiding sense of purpose that we find in God.
They miss a sense that someone sees their struggles and their unsung goodness and still finds them loveable – that while we are sinners, we are much more than only sinners, and the center of the Universe knows it, and sees that in us.
They miss a sense that when they’re lost, someone is on their way to come find them. That there’s a Good Shepherd trying to bring them home.
They miss what it is to hope in God’s declaration of the future – a sustained and sustainable Creation, shaped by trust among peoples and firm in the way of peace, where tears and death and darkness are no more.
A whole lot of people are finding they miss God.
The great Existentialist philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre once observed, “I don’t believe in God, but I miss Him.”
Without clubbing Sartre for his honesty, the Church teaches us to wonder if God was somewhere in that longing—that sense of missing the Divine.
And that’s why Lent is so important, even for us, even for this year.
It’s a year when we have not had to work ourselves up to 40 days of pondering our longing.
This time, a lot of us have reached Longing 2.0 – the longing that comes on the other side of months and months of seeing the shoddy crutches we lean on snap in pieces before our very eyes.
Lent asks us to ponder how we might live, now that we see so clearly how we can’t afford to keep living a moment longer.
The promise of Lent is the promise that God will teach us how to build back better from here, as God gives us the strength to take up the cross and to join the work of redemption that is already under way, as all things are enfolded under the banner of Christ.
So it is a weird year.
The particular disciplines of Lent may seem redundant in a year with so many of those same lessons already baked in.
But our longing for a new heaven and a new earth could serve us well, particularly it guides us to offer our lives in service to the One in whom all true hopes must finally dwell.