Hey everybody. Sorry this is a day late but I was unable to post this yesterday because the day got shorter than expected when I spent two hours running and then 1 hour trying and failing to make ashes for our Ash Wednesday service (more on that in the next few days).
But the following is a very cleaned up version of what I tried to share during the homily portion of our Ash Wednesday service last night. I hope you enjoy it even if it is a day late!
The first time I observed Lent, it had nothing to do with Easter. It was September of my Junior year of high school. My youth pastor had awakened in me a desire to pursue a holy life and I wanted to work on becoming a better person. So on August 31st I hatched a plan that for the 30 days of September I would give up television, movies, video games and secular music (which meant the Oldies station). I would read at least three chapters of Scripture a day, compliment five people and do one act of service. And I would keep a journal of it all for accountability’s sake.
So for the entire month of September, that is what I did. I kept a yellow notebook journal with lists of every good deed, every compliment, every Scripture passage along with some written thoughts. It was in my hands at all times. People would ask about it but I would not tell them what it was because it was my secret. Also, I knew even then the whole thing was pretty nerdy. But the project itself went well. I didn’t miss one compliment, performed 30 small acts of service and didn’t relapse to the television or the oldies station.
It was only a few months later, in late January, that I found out about Lent, the forty day period for fasting, discipline and prayer. Since the yellow notebook project had worked so well I decided to do it again for the forty (actually forty six) days of Lent. This time I used a red notebook and once again I didn’t miss a day, even the Sundays which are supposed to be “feast days.”
I repeated it again the next September and the next Lent after that. I planned on doing it forever until the crazy, hectic schedule of college life put an end to it. I have still celebrated Lent every year, just in less intricate ways.
As I have been thinking about that first September with that yellow journal, I have also been reading, “The Patient Ferment of the Early Church” by Alan Kreider which everyone really must read. Kreider devotes a large section to the early church’s catechesis processes whereby everyday Roman pagans became tried and true and baptized Christians. Kreider reminded me of what I have always known, that Lent was not originally conceived for the mature Christians. Lent was more a part of the evangelism process than it was the discipleship process, though it certainly said a lot about discipleship. Today Lent is something the mature, Super Christians do but originally it was designed for brand new, not yet baptized Christians who wanted to know more and be more like Jesus. The forty days were intended to help these new, curious Christians figure out what Christianity was all about before they committed their lives to it by baptism. In short, this forty day period of discipline, fasting and prayer was the means by which they were apprenticed into Christianity.
Over time each new Christian was expected to have a mature mentor and eventually those mentors began fasting during Lent as a way of journeying alongside and bearing with the new Christians. Over time even those who were not mentoring new Christians began fasting during Lent as well so that they too could be with the new believers.
I don’t want you to miss the very profound point that all illustrates. Even though Lent was not intended for them, the mature Christians commemorated it every year, not as a sign of their Christian maturity, but as a sign that they were willing to be weak to help the weak. Once a year they wanted to pretend to be brand new Christians again. They wanted to arrive at Resurrection Morning as if they were experiencing God’s grace for the very first time. They were willing to “start over” as it were on their faith journey and become as children again, taking forty days to remember their sins and experience their weaknesses so that on Easter morning they could share more fully in the baptism of the new believers.
This is relevant for us because I have noticed that a funny thing happens as we mature in the faith. As we get further and further away from our own baptism we begin to forget about grace. The further we get from our “come to Jesus” moments, the more we forget the true nature of grace and the true meaning of our baptism. Put another way, as we mature we become self righteous and proud, forgetting that we too were once wretched. Therefore, the ashes tonight are not signs of how mature our Christianity is, but signs that we want to remember our beginning, return to our roots and be humbled by our weaknesses again so that grace can grab hold of us anew on Easter morning.
For me, this means that when I receive the ashes tonight I am once again a junior in high school with all the awkwardness that comes with. I am sitting again in my room on a hot August night, facing my own weaknesses, ashamed of own my sin and humbled by my own inadequacies. Once more I am 17 years old and feeling the weight of holiness’ call and not quite sure what to do about it. So I fast a few unhelpful practices, vow to commit a few helpful ones and take up a yellow journal, all so that I can work out my own salvation because, after all, it is God who is at work in me to will and to act according to God’s wonderful purposes. And, as I did so many years ago, I again trust only God to deliver me to a grace filled Easter morning.