Lent is a time when I used to respond to the call to give something up for 40 days. But as life got harder and loss piled upon loss, I began to resent being told that I had to give up something else for Lent.
So then I entered the phase of doing something positive for 40 days instead. While better than giving something up, I began to resent that certain days on an already busy calendar demanded yet more from me. I struggled to find an approach to Lent that truly prepared me for Easter.
And then came THE Ash Wednesday. I stood in front of a congregation, imposing the ashes as I always did. But this time was different. A woman came forward to receive the ashes, but she struggled. She had dementia and couldn’t find the front. The congregation guided her and she stood before me. My mother. I looked into her eyes–the woman who still knew me but soon would begin to forget–and put ashes on her head saying, “Dust you are and to dust you shall return.” She had to be guided back to her seat and the bowl of ashes in my hand became mixed with my tears. A gut-wrenching decade later I received the box of dust that had been my mother via the postal service.
That Ash Wednesday made me quit debating whether I should give something up or do something positive. Now Lent is my reminder that, as the Shirelles so wisely sang, “Mama said there’d be days like this.” Well, Mama learned that from God. God said there’d be days like this–harsh days, desert days–and that one hard day often stretches into 40 days and 40 days can stretch into periods of years. When the number 40 crops up in the Bible, it is not meant literally. It is symbolic of a really hard time. Noah had it, Moses had it, the Israelites had it, Jesus had it. And in the harsh fires of those deserts, a new thing was born.
These days I don’t give anything up and I don’t add anything to my habits. Instead, I reflect on the truth that there are stretches of life that no amount of positive thinking will change. There are deep pits where we feel abandoned, alone, and hopeless. All of us. If you haven’t been there yet, you will. And when you’ve lived with that reminder for 40 days, the power of the Easter message at the other end will literally throw you out of bed and into a place of joy like no other.
I’ve found the Lenten practice that actually prepares me for Easter.