Ash Wednesday

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Today is Ash Wednesday in the western church, which means that many Roman Catholics, Lutherans, Anglicans, and others will go to bed tonight with an ashen cross on their foreheads, reminding them that we are all ashes to ashes, dust to dust.

Lent is a holy season in the church calendar, but I can’t help but wonder if it isn’t awfully easy to miss the point of it. Actually, I know it is easy because I do it all the time.

One thing it isn’t: a time for misery. Our Lord is clear that when we fast we are to anoint our heads with oil and rejoice. Lent is a time set aside for a special sort of joy.

But how can that be if we spend the month not eating meat (or candy) or practicing some form of self-denial? Isn’t that, by definition, a cause of unhappiness?

On the contrary. Lent is a time of repentance, yes, but repentance in the scripture is constantly presented to us as a liberation, as a coming to ourselves, as a release from captivity. Repentance is the true key to joy and blessedness.

When Adam fell, the Lord told him that he would return to the dust whence he came. That is why we cannot escape the sorrow. But that sorrow is perpetual. We always feel it and sometimes we acknowledge it. The difference with Lent is that we embrace the sorrow, and embracing it overcome it.

When Adam fell, he fell under subjection to things he was supposed to rule. The dust first, and animals too. But most of all, to himself and his appetites.

It was food that cost him his glory. He had been asked to fast from one thing and to eat everything else to his heart’s content – and his body’s. But he didn’t fast. He ate the one thing that could rob him of all his joy. He fell into subjection to his appetite for food.

And he felt ashamed. From there everything unravelled. The man and woman were put in conflict with each other. The man and the garden entered a mortal conflict of their own. Everything was turned over.

The only way to get things right side up again is to repent, which means to turn around.

When we repent, we do not enter into a time of misery and sorrow. We restore the dominion we ought to have over our appetites and passions.

This is the point of lent: to take back the rightful dominion for which we were created and to which we were appointed. During this season, we focus particularly on one or a few things – perhaps meat or dairy or TV or candy. If we fast in a Biblically sound way, we bring that thing into submission, and when Pascha comes and we enter into the Resurrection of Christ, we can resume that thing denied, no longer as slave, but now as rightful master.

This seems important to me. We Americans seem afraid to take authority, even over ourselves. Let it begin with an act of repentance then.

Repent of a self-indulgence and take dominion over it from now till Easter. Make it something easy, a victory you feel confident you can win by the grace of God.

Don’t be proud and try to conquer your every sin. The smaller you start, the more humbly you begin, the more feeble you recognize yourself to be, the more the Lord can reveal His magnitude, His majesty, and His strength in and through you.

But enter with joy, for it is joy that we are called to in our slain and risen Lord.

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