This month we continue our reflection on the various seasons and important festival days of the liturgical church year by considering Ash Wednesday (February 22) and the season of Lent. Although the middle of February is typically reserved for feelings of love and romance, around that time this year the church is prepared to consider her unfaithfulness. Her members contemplate how they have not loved God and obeyed his will as they ought. We reflect on our mortality—“from dust you came to dust you shall return.” We reflect on the holy sufferings and death of our Lord Jesus Christ on our behalf. Bring on the ashes!
We are not morbid people. We are not overly obsessed with chilling, ghastly thoughts of our transience. No, we spend necessary, beneficial time reflecting on the reality of our mortality. We do this so that we are prepared to receive the life that God has for us in Christ, and to receive it to its full meaning. And so during the time in between the day that the church remembers Jesus’ transfiguration and the joyful festival day of Easter, we embark upon our forty day pilgrimage of Lent. This year it just so happens that our observance of Ash Wednesday and the beginning of Lent is sprinkled with a dose of irony. Our solemn journey of reflection on unfaithfulness, lack of love for God, and mortality begins a week after Valentine’s Day.
The word Lent comes from the old English word for “spring.” As I once heard it put, Lent is “spring training” for the Christian as we are tutored in repentance, faith, and holy living. The season has been kept as a time for devotion and self-denial that comes forth from a faithful heart that dwells on God’s Word and draws life and hope from it. Beginning in the 4th century the observance of Lent originally became connected with a forty day fast prior to Easter. This tradition continues today as some Christians give up meat during Lent or surrender a vice like chocolate, coffee, or television. Still others, like Atonement, eat a meager meal of soup and salad while gathering together every Wednesday during the season for worship. While a fast of any kind is not necessary, it is certainly a helpful way to discipline the body and the mind upon the things of God and the sacrifice of Christ on our behalf. Should you decide to fast in some way, it may be helpful to consider Jesus’ words about fasting in his Sermon on the Mount, “And when you fast, do not look gloomy like the hypocrites, for they disfigure their faces that their fasting may be seen by others. Truly, I say to you, they have received their reward” (Mt 6:16).
The Lenten season begins with Ash Wednesday and the imposition of ashes. In the Lutheran church the purpose of the imposition of the ashes is to call to mind the curse given to Adam by God after the Fall in Gen 3:19, “By the sweat of your face you shall eat bread, till you return to the ground, for out of it you were taken; for you are dust, and to dust you shall return.”
The Sundays in Lent focus on the themes of temptation, God’s mercy, the life of a disciple, the refreshment that God gives to his disciples, and the lordship of Jesus. In the middle of each Sunday in the season of Lent, it has become a common part of Lutheran piety to provide an opportunity for reflective worship during the middle of the week which is centered in the suffering and death of Jesus. This year our midweek Lenten sermon theme will be, “Words of Life from the Cross.” The series will incorporate different images and paintings that illustrate the words of life taken from various Gospel readings. Furthermore, to enhance our devotional reflection on this theme, a Lenten devotional booklet entitled, Words of Life from the Cross, will be made available to take for all who are interested on the table in the narthex.
May our Lord richly bless your contemplation on the penitential and contrite character of the Lenten season even while you reflect on God’s great love for you through the suffering, death, and resurrection of our Lord Jesus Christ.