In the months leading up to the September 1986 national premier of The Oprah Winfrey Show on ABC, the network ran commercials to introduce this person with an odd sounding name. In one commercial an interviewer stops a well-dressed man coming out of the theater and askes "Maestro what do you think of Oprah?" He responds, "I don’t think opera, I sing opera." In another commercial Oprah corrects the mispronunciation of her name saying "Oprah... Oh-Prah… not okra." While her show was well known in Chicago and the people of Baltimore knew her as a local news journalist, most of the nation at the time had no idea who Oprah was, let alone how to pronounce her name. Oprah? No one knew who or what an "oprah" was. My, how things have changed!
I often wonder if the church feels the same way about Lent. Lint? You mean the stuff I clean out of my dryer or find in my pocket? No, not lint… Lent. Oh, you mean the past participle of lend? No. not lent… Lent! Those who grew up in Evangelical churches may not have a clue what this Christian season is all about. For those who grew up in a Mainline church may know it as the 40 days between Ash Wednesday and Good Friday, but not know what the history of the season is or why we still commemorate it.
Lent comes to us from the old English "Lenten" meaning "Spring time" and is a season of time beginning with Ash Wednesday and ending on Good Friday. Around the year 200 the church started to mark this Spring season as a time to prepare new converts for baptism with a time of fasting, study, penance, and the giving of money. It was also used as a time to call those who were alienated from the church back to the Christian Community. While Spring time is 92 days, Lent last only 40 to mirror the 40 days Jesus spent in the wilderness being tempted.
Traditionally Lent is a time of repentance and fasting (two words today we rather not use, let alone practice) that begins with Ash Wednesday (a day we remember our mortality). We prefer to avoid fasting, repentance, and the acknowledgement of our mortality because, for too long, the church has used fear, shame, and guilt to manipulate people in to keeping rules that reinforce power structures. But I don’t think we have to toss out the tradition of Ash Wednesday and Lent to discover a healthier way of being a church. Rather, I think we should reclaim the season and reimagine what it means to repent and fast.
The traditional words spoken as a minister imposes ashes on our forehead are some form of, "remember o’ mortal, from ashes you were made and to ashes you will return." Which is a true and stark reminder that we are here for a brief time and that we are made of nothing more than star dust. This has often been used to instill fear of death and hell. But remember, Jesus told us in the Gospel of John that he came to bring abundant life, not in the form of eternity, but a way to live in the here and now that brings fullness to the human experience. Dorothy Day puts it this way, "I wanted life and I wanted the abundant life. I wanted it for others too." Yes, we are mortal. Let this not cause us to fear death, but rather embrace life. Yes, we are but dust and ash, but God makes beautiful things out of dust. God makes beautiful things out of us. I hope you won’t miss the opportunity to
And while you are rethinking what Ash Wednesday is all about, I hope you take time to reimagine what it means to repent and fast. Repent can certainly bring about shame and guilt, a sense that one is unworthy of love and respect. The English word "repent" means to feel regret or remorse. However, in the gospels the word "repent" is translated from the Greek word "metanoeo" meaning to change one’s mind. When we think we have everything figured out and understand God we become stagnate and dangerous. God is replaced with our ego. But the season of Lent gives us opportunity to see the Divine in new ways we may not have before. This is a good time to pick up a new spiritual practice and experience God in a new way. God is described in the biblical text as wind, so fly a kite and see what it teaches you about God. Paul reminds us (Romans 1:20) that God is made visible through creation. Take a walk through nature and experience God in a new way. Jesus tells us that when we do for the least, we do for him. Spend time with those who society marginalizes, I am confident that you will learn something new about God. What are some other ways you may change your mind about God by experiencing the Divine in new ways? Maybe try something new each day for the forty days of Lent.
When we think of fasting we think of giving up some food or drink as a way of punishing ourselves to show God how sincere we feel regret and remorse. But if we change our understanding of repent from "regret and remorse" to "changing our minds" we must also rethink what it means to fast. Maybe our fast can be giving up old ways of how we think about God and our world, as we explore new understandings. Perhaps you can give up social media and only communicate with people face to face for 40 days; surely you will see God and others in a new way. Maybe you can give up that trip through the fast food drive thru for 40 days and give that money to the church food pantry. How about giving up watching the nightly news and spend the 30 minutes praying for your city and country. What can you give up so that you may receive a new way of processing the world and God?
I hope you will embrace and participate in Ash Wednesday and Lent. If you do I think you will experience a resurrection of spirit and thought this Easter, and who among us couldn’t use a resurrection!