A MESSAGE FROM REV. J.C. AUSTIN: THE REAL MEANING OF LENT
Friends, as I mentioned last week, we are coming up on the beginning of Lent, with Ash Wednesday happening this coming week. Our Ash Wednesday Service will take place at 7 p.m. via Zoom (see the details on page 2), and will include both the Imposition of Ashes and the sacrament of Communion, so it will require some advance preparation from you.
It’s very important to have ashes on hand if you are participating. If you “ordered” an Ash Wednesday kit, you can pick them up starting today (after 10 a.m.) outside the South Entrance; just look for the designated container when you get there. If you are making them on your own, charcoal ash (like in a grill) is probably best, but any ash – like from a burned candlewick or piece of paper – will probably work.
In any case, though, you need to not simply have ashes (and remember, a little goes a long way!), but to prepare them before the service. To do that, you will need to mix them with a few drops of oil at a time (olive oil is traditional, but vegetable/canola oil or baby oil works perfectly well) and then mix them together. Repeat until the mixture resembles a thick paste. If you’re a visual learner, check out this brief, helpful video: youtu.be/PDrMgCN6kt8.
All this, of course, presupposes that observing Ash Wednesday is a good and important thing! So I want to address that, as well. I have seen people online saying things like, “Do we really need Lent this year? Haven’t we given up enough already?”
The reference, of course, is to the practice of giving something up for Lent, a practice that is particularly prominent in the Roman Catholic and Episcopalian traditions. And if that was central to Lent, I think I would agree that we could give up ‘giving up something’ for Lent this year!
But that practice is hardly the point of observing Lent; on the contrary, at its best it is designed to focus one’s attention on the observance of Lent by eliminating distractions and indulgence and redirect that energy into prayer and reflection.
But the danger of confusing the practice with the point is part of why Presbyterians have traditionally avoided giving things up for Lent and instead stressed the importance of taking things up for Lent: engaging in additional spiritual disciplines of prayer, Scripture reading, and service to deepen one’s understanding and practice of faith.
This actually goes back to the origins of Lent, which was developed after Christianity was unbanned and legitimized by the Roman Empire and the church needed a means to prepare the sudden surge of people interested in Christianity to receive the sacrament of Baptism. Their answer was Lent: a 40-day period of intensive study, worship, and preparation to be baptized on Easter.
And this is the dimension I want to suggest for us to claim in Lent this year. Both Ash Wednesday and Lent are sometimes overly focused on what we’re giving up, what we’re turning away from. But repentance means to turn towards something, too. As I mentioned in a recent sermon, the traditional questions in the sacrament of Baptism include both those turns: turning away from evil and sin, turning towards Jesus Christ and then following him in our lives of faith.
This Lent, more than ever, it is good to remember our baptisms, to remember that God’s grace has claimed us and called us by name, and nothing in heaven or earth can separate us from that. And then it is good to reclaim our baptisms, to rededicate ourselves to responding to God’s grace intentionally and actively and with gratitude.
So, I invite you to join the worship service on Ash Wednesday and to participate in Lent by turning towards Christ with renewed commitment and expectation, taking up new ways of Christian worship and learning and service. And as you do so, I am confident that Christ will meet you in that and bless you in Lent with insight and growth and fullness and yes, even joy!
Grace and peace,