Sackcloth and Ashes…

Well, my dear friends, we are now a week into this Lenten season.  Are you fighting the good fight?  Have you found yourself drawn closer to the Lord? Experienced any challenges? Do you know why we even do what we do?

I ask because I have observed Lent on and off for quite a few years now and have only done so in the most perfunctory fashion.  Lent was an obscure idea that was thrown around in the Catholic church when I was a small child and too young to really understand it.  It has since grown into an obvious step in my faith as an Adult Christian.

Why does Lent matter and how can it benefit our walk?

I’ve been researching the origins of Lent and looking for the answer to the question of “why?”  My research led to some good clarification for myself that I will try to share in a concise fashion.  If I’ve come to misinterpret something or you have another understanding than please share it.  We’re all still learning…

I think we have to start with clarifying that observing Lent is not a biblical command.  It is a church-based tradition that has roots in scriptural examples.

The Bible does not mention the custom of Lent, however, the practice of repentance and mourning in ashes is found in several verses.  Some of these verses are 2 Samuel 13:19; Esther 4:1; Job 2:8 and one I particularly like:

Daniel 9:3  “So I turned to the Lord God and pleaded with him in prayer and petition, in fasting, and in sackcloth and ashes.”

There are also several parallels to the 40-day period.  You have Jesus in the desert, the time both Elijah and Moses spent with God, as well as the 40 years that Israel spent wandering in the desert.  These events often included acts of either repentance or cleansing, which is part of the Lenten experience.

I am generally wary of church traditions that aren’t clearly defined in scripture.  I find many of them at best constraining (i.e. rules about how to pray) and at worst hurtful  or diminishing to the body (i.e. a church hierarchy that immobilizes those without titles).  Lent is one tradition that I find to be rather wonderful.

Lent is a great time to “repent” — to return to God and re-focus our lives to be more in line with Jesus. It’s a 40 day opportunity to  redirect ourselves and reaffirm things.

I especially enjoyed the following description…

“There are traditionally forty days in Lent which are marked by fasting, both from foods and festivities, and by other acts of penance. The three traditional practices to be taken up with renewed vigor during Lent are prayer (justice towards God), fasting (justice towards self), and almsgiving (justice towards neighbor). Today, some people give up a vice of theirs, add something that will bring them closer to God, and often give the time or money spent doing that to charitable purposes or organizations.

On Ash Wednesday I attended a service with Nicole and on the ride home we discussed what we might be giving up for Lent.  I had been volleying between several options and Nicole was fairly set on sweets.  I mentioned how I wanted this year to include something that really affected me but that I didn’t want to get trapped in the desire to think of something unique and less obvious than the usual t.v. or red meat (two things that had been considered).

FYI… At an Ash Wednesday service, folks are invited to come forward to receive the ashes. The minister will make a small cross on your forehead by smudging the ashes. While the ashes remind us of our mortality and sin, the cross reminds us of Jesus’ resurrection (life after death) and forgiveness. It’s a powerful, non-verbal way that we can experience God’s forgiveness and renewal as we return to Jesus.

We got into a discussion of how I still struggle with identity and self-worth.  I hate to sound like such a feminine cliche but I never quite feel pretty (let alone beautiful) and one of the only reasons I am satisfied with myself from day to day is that I cover-up my imperfections with a nice layer of make-up.  I don’t find my beauty in the Lord.  I rely upon Cover Girl and Revlon to provide my confidence.

The idea of people looking at me sans my make-up is terrifying.  Having nothing but the truth of how God sees me to boost my self-esteem for 40 days sounds like an overwhelming challenge.  I hated the idea on the spot and immediately wanted to dismiss it.  Even Nicole’s ridiculous idea of no Facebook for 40 whole days sounded better :)  It was my absolute loathing of the idea that made me settle on it.  What greater challenge was I going to come up with?  This was one thing that was definitely going to force me to rely on the Lord.

I emptied my purse that night; removing every piece of make-up.  It was kinda of embarrassing to find that in lipsticks alone I had 7.

But it has been a week and so far this face hasn’t caused any children to run screaming or men to keel over in laughter…

I’m still struggling and mirrors aren’t my favorite thing right now but it hasn’t been the disaster I anticipated.  I hope that by the end of these 40-days I might even stop noticing that the make-up isn’t there but I have a ways to go until then.  Until then I just have to slap on some prayer and start my day…

Are you observing Lent this year?  What are you giving up?  I really look forward to hearing how this first week has been for you and why you chose what you chose.