This is part of my 2013 Lent series: Reflections on Repentance.]
Last week was Ash Wednesday, which begins the church season of Lent. On that day, hundreds of millions of people (perhaps even as much as a billion) went to quiet services and got ash crosses finger-painted on their foreheads.
It’s a strange act, but perhaps the most striking one in Christian tradition. It’s certainly my favorite.
No matter how widespread Christianity has been in the world, I can’t imagine there was ever a time in which the public mark of ashes on one’s face did not stir some sort of double-take from passers-by. Even to this day, it’s the most counter-cultural and outward thing many American Christians widely do.
Ashen forehead crosses are one of the few Christian traditions that is still ours, and hasn’t been co-opted by the wider culture, and thereby watered-down in its meaning or force.
Lent is the only major Christian season that I can think of that isn’t celebrated as a general holiday by much of the world, no matter one’s religious commitment. You might count Good Friday, but it’s hardly a major holiday like Christmas or Easter.
It’s obvious to the point of cliché, but we humans (especially Americans) don’t like times set aside for mourning. That’s not a profound observation, I grant, but the fact that we all know this, see it’s detriment, and yet continue to slide ever further down the path of distraction and disengagement from the darker things of life and our hearts should give us pause.
(And I don’t think this is a new impulse in humans–we just have better technology to better enable us now.)
Thinking about why this is, I’m torn over whether we stay away from mourning because we misunderstand it, or because we understand it all too well. Or, now that I think about it, maybe it’s us that we’re avoiding.
You see, mourning isn’t really something we “do” or even “avoid”. To me, at least, it seems that “mourning” is actually the natural response of hearts to certain things. You can’t learn to mourn; you can only learn to let yourself mourn.
The reason why mourning, then, is so central to Christian practice and discipline (and perhaps this is part of why we don’t like it), is that Christianity proclaims that mourning is the proper response to a proper and realistic view of the world and our hearts as they truly are.
We don’t like that.
Christianity, and Lent, does not tell us to mourn. It tells us to remove those distractions from simply seeing reality. In other words, it doesn’t tell us to play a different soundtrack during this time of year, but rather turn the volume up on the one that’s already playing. (Maybe a sweet Lent Mixtape could help? Just sayin’)
Mourning is the weight that besets our humanity and our world. It’s the proper response to eyes seeing clearly; the proper emotion for hearts that see what God has declared to be true.
But there’s encouragement here. This is not the end of the story, or even the story in its present fullness. There is a promised “reflex” of hearts, where true and deep mourning turns to a greater sense of our humanity and a deeper sense of security, freedom, and joy. Seeing things for what they are is profoundly good for us humans.
And God has given us a good and gracious gift to turn our mourning into joy. It’s called Repentance.
Repentance is the practical way in which we respond to mourning and, in the alchemy of our hearts, convert it to joy. It might not get rid of the mourning, but it produces joy in its midst.
And, so I just want to invite us into this year’s Lent series: Reflections on Repentance. We’ll mostly hover around Psalm 51, but I want to engage in Repentance and really wrestle with what it is and how it’s done.
Because, if we’re honest, we don’t know how to do it. I don’t know how to do it.
So, will you learn with me? Will you mourn with me? Because I don’t want the most apparent mark of mourning in my life to simply an annual ashen cross graced upon my forehead. I want that cross of mourning burned into my heart and life in such a way that it’s as clear, apparent, and peculiar as on Ash Wednesday.
As Christians, Repentance should mark our lives and hearts. As a pastor told me in one of the most pivotal moments in my life: “Repentance is the food the Christian life”.
So let’s eat.
[image credit: photo by Dale W. Elsinger for the IBTimes]