Lent begins early this year. Lent is the 40–day–long season of reflection, penitence and self–examination as we prepare for Easter. It begins on Ash Wednesday, which falls on February 10 this year, and continues through Holy Saturday on March 26.
Now if you were to count up the days on the calendar, you’d find that there are actually 46 days from February 10 to March 26. We call it a 40–day season, however, because we don’t count the Sundays of these weeks. The church has always considered Sundays to be “little Easters” which are days of celebrating resurrection and life.
In centuries past, people would mark the penitence of Lent during the week and on Sundays they would take a break from fasting. One of the ironies of contemporary times is that people tend to mark Lent in church on Sundays while generally ignoring it during the week.
The date of Easter, and therefore Lent, is not fixed. Easter is a movable feast which is based on the lunar calendar. Easter can fall anywhere between March 22 and April 25 in the Western Church. This year, Easter comes very early—March 27.
The church understands that Lent is a time to turn afresh to God. We begin on Ash Wednesday, so named because we use ashes to mark our foreheads with the sign of the cross. We remember our mortality with the phrase, “Remember you are dust and to dust you shall return.”
That practice has some of its roots in one of the stories of creation in which God makes human beings out of the dust of the earth (Genesis 2:7). Let’s be clear that the story was never meant to be taken literally—no more than we take it literally when Joni Mitchell sang that “we are stardust.” The heart of that story in Genesis is that God takes a little bit of dirt and breathes into it, and gives life to this soil creature—which is what the Hebrew word “adam” means. It was never a proper name.
It’s one of those wonderful Biblical images that remind us that we are bound together not only with all of earth’s creatures, but that our web of life includes the very dirt on which we walk. Theologian Norman Wirzba writes, “God fashions the first human being by taking the dirt of the ground into his hands, holding it so close that it can share in the divine breath, and inspiring it with the freshness of life. It is only as the ground is suffused with God’s intimate, breathing presence that human life is possible at all.”
We were talking about that in a recent Bible Study, and someone said, “Whenever I hear about God making us out of the earth, it always reminds me that we are grounded in God.” I thought to myself what a wonderful way of visioning this story in a new fresh way. An ancient Biblical symbol is filled with new meaning.
This is how the Bible has been used throughout its life. We continue to hear new meanings in ancient texts. These stories continue to speak to us on so many different levels. Even though our scientific knowledge has vastly increased, even though we know so much more about the origins of life, this metaphor of God shaping us from dirt speaks to us of being grounded in God in intimate and deep ways. The ancient metaphor continues to have power in shaping the ways we think about God and the ways we think about ourselves.
Made of the earth … grounded in God.
This also enriches our understanding of Lent. While Lent is a penitential season, it is not a season for us to wallow in guilt. Rather, Lent is a time for us to reflect on our inner life and how that inner life is shaped by God’s life and reflected in all of our relationships—with God, with each other, with all of creation.
Lent, in other words, is about transformation. Richard Rohr comments that so much of what passes for religion in North America is in reality not much more than “religious motivational talks”—as if trying harder will help us to reinvigorate our interior life.
Jesus, on the other hand, never gave inspirational or motivational talks. “Jesus is much more concerned about shaking your foundations, giving you an utterly alternative self–image, world–image, and God–image, and thus reframing your entire reality.”
Lent is a time for us to be grounded once more in the love of God. That’s the whole purpose of “giving something up for Lent.” We give up the baggage and illusions and distractions of our life, and surrender ourselves more deeply to what’s more profoundly true and life–giving.
This Lent, I will remember that I am dust, and to dust I will return. I will remember that my life is but a fleeting shadow in the life of the universe. I will also remember more profoundly that my brief time is grounded in the Creator.
Join us Ash Wednesday at 7 pm at Christ Church if you wish to make a new commitment to being grounded in God’s love.
Yme Woensdregt is Pastor at Christ Church Anglican