I didn’t grow up observing Lent, although I guess there were opportunities. After all, half of my extended family were Roman Catholic, and I remember plenty of Friday night family dinners at Grandpa’s Catfish House during the season. And every now and then we went to the little Methodist church in Gravel Ridge, AR, with my cousin, Bubba Dickens. I liked that place. The Methodists gave you a real piece of bread during communion instead of one of those little church chiclets that tasted like paper. So while I wasn’t a participant, to say that I was unaware of Lent wouldn’t be the whole truth.
But it wasn’t until my grown-up days that I discovered the richness and depth of these 40 days leading up to Easter. Some time around the beginning of seminary—2005 or so—I began observing this season in the life of the Church. It was a time when a lot of things changed for me, and I found the intense focus of the season helped to calm my spirit, helped to recenter my vision on God during a time of tumult (i.e., during early adulthood when one is faced with figuring out life and one’s place in the world). These days, I look forward to Lent because it is always a time of intense refocusing on God’s purpose for my life, and of learning again and again that I only find my true self in Christ when I learn to partake in suffering and loss.
During Lent, I am often reminded of a famous story about Rabbi Bunim of P’shiskha, who carried two slips of paper at all times, one in each pocket. On one was written the phrase from Genesis 18.27: “I am but dust and ashes.” On the other was written a line from the Babylonian Talmud: “The world was created for me.” It is said that on good days, the rabbi would focus on the paper that reminded him of his humble origins. On particularly bad days, he would read the more uplifting message about everything being made for him. As a follower of Jesus, this always points me toward thinking about my baptism. As I walk through Lent remembering what Christ has done for the world, even for me, Paul’s words from Romans 6 ring loud and clear. In my baptism I have died with Christ. Because my Lord and Savior first modeled this pattern and bids me to follow him, I, too, experience humility and the suffering of both life and death. But at the same time, there is resurrection. There is new life. There is hope. I have found that during Lent, more than any other time of the year, I am able to focus and walk in this tension of being caught between the reality of pain and suffering and death on the one hand, and the promise that Christ will see me through on the other.
In the end, I celebrate Lent because this season confronts me with my own human limitations and need for God’s grace. The ashen cross I receive on my forehead every year to mark the beginning of the journey puts the stark reality of human frailty and death—even my own frailty and death—front and center. But when I receive this symbol I am also filled with holy awe. Yes, I have limits. Yes, I will return to the dust. No, I’m not perfect by any means. But every year, without fail, that little gray smudge I bear on a Wednesday points me to the rich beauty and power of the new life I live in Christ.