Ash Wednesday marks the beginning of Lent for the Western churches, including, of course, The Episcopal Church. In the liturgy for Ash Wednesday, we hear the following from what is called The Invitation to a Holy Lent:
I invite you, therefore, in the name of the Church, to the observance of a holy Lent, by self-examination and repentance; by prayer, fasting and self-denial; and by reading and meditating on God’s holy Word. (emphasis mine).
This invitation is, of course, rooted in long centuries of tradition, and at the heart of that tradition was the practice of fasting. Most ancient Christians (and, it must be said, many modern ones, as well) would cut out whole categories of food from their diets during the six weeks of Lent, and really put themselves in touch with the spirit of self-denial. In that time, however, food was probably the only thing that could be used to create that atmosphere of self-denial. The fact is that most people led relatively spartan lives in the time when this tradition arose, and there wasn’t much to cut out.
Fasting and self-denial today, it seems to me, are about way more than food. The self-examination to which Lent calls us invites us to consider the overall shape of our lives, and to ask ourselves where our lives are out of shape. What are the bad habits that we have developed that keep us from becoming the people God invites us to be? What are the obstacles in our lives that prevent us from taking the shape that God dreams for us? What prevents us from experiencing God’s grace and living lives of meaning, peace and joy? Perhaps we do overeat or eat food that is not good for us. On the other hand, perhaps the habits that most block our growth into the image of God have nothing to do with our eating habits. Maybe they have to do with bad habits that have developed in some of our relationships. Maybe what we most need to fast from is technology. Maybe we need to cultivate new habits that bring us more into harmony with our environment. Maybe the form of self-denial that makes the most sense for us is denying ourselves a little play time in order to devote that time to meditation, Centering Prayer or some other devotional practice. The only way to know what habits need to be abandoned or cultivated is to take some time to examine our lives, to explore their shape and contour, and to see where adjustments need to be made.
Lent, I think, has a bit of a reputation as a “downer” in the church year. We have conceived of it as a negative, imagining that we need to invent ways of self-denial to be faithful to the season, and it makes us grumpy. But Lent is not about self-denial for the sake of self-denial. Lent is about pruning for the sake of growth. Lent is about giving ourselves permission to let go of old, unhealthy patterns in favor of new, more life-giving ones. It is true that the ashes of Ash Wednesday remind us of our own mortality. But it is also true that ashes are very fertile, and that fertility can nurture new growth. It is, after all, out of ashes that phoenixes rise — not only the phoenixes of mythology, but whatever phoenix is waiting inside us to arise.
So if I were to give out my own Lenten invitations, apart from the liturgical one I quoted above, I would invite you to make Lent as positive an experience as you can. Lent is not about dying, but it is about being reborn in the shape that God dreams for you. If you were to devote yourself in Lent to discovering what really gives you life, perhaps you would arrive at Easter not simply thinking of Jesus’ resurrection but also celebrating the new life that is rising in you because of the stones that you have spent the time of Lent rolling away.