Two weeks ago, our world was briefly united around one thing (no, not the errant balloon): Super Bowl Sunday. If you pastor in a church like mine, you probably saw evidence of Super Bowl affections on Sunday morning. Hats, caps, jerseys and more, as congregants paraded their allegiances by adorning their bodies.
I’ve never been much of a sports guy, which—although severely limiting the range of my sermon illustrations—has given me a bit of an outside perspective on the phenomenon of sports culture in America. There are more parallels with sports-fandom and Jesus-followership than one might imagine.
Chiefly among them, the unconscious desire to “concretize” our allegiances through physical adornment.
Stick with me.
There’s something profoundly and fundamentally human about wanting to join ourselves bodily to the things we love. We long to somehow be united with what we love, to take it into ourselves in the way that is proper to the object of our love. So, for instance, food is consumed, animals are cared for, beauty is praised, lovers unite; and in sport, allegiances are declared bodily. We literally wear our fandom on our sleeves.
Lent predates the Roman Catholic Church by centuries.
The pastor-theologians of the Church, as astute observers of the human heart, early recognized that one of the best ways to communicate the faith is by concretizing it, by making the faith substantive, something that can be held, felt, consumed, even worn.
Jesus Himself gave the Church three physical objects with which to make our faith feel-able: the waters of baptism, the bread of His body and the wine of His blood.
The wine and the bread, of course, were given to the Church amid the older Jewish ritual of Passover, which concretized the story and faith of Israel through additional symbols: lamb, blood, herbs, bread, wine. Those physical elements were employed in a repeated ritual that called on participants to use their bodies, not simply to mentally receive a set of facts, but to move, to taste, to feel, to smell, to speak, to repeat. To react, bodily, to the faith.
Perhaps there is room in our evangelical churches to retrieve the ancient, mere Christian practices of physically and bodily concretizing our faith. Perhaps as church leaders we have a responsibility to our children and to one another to provide ways for our people to feel their faith—not simply emotionally, but physically, bodily, tangibly, viscerally.
Do we not owe our people a chance to wear their identities on their sleeves? Or, in the case of Ash Wednesday, on their foreheads?
But isn’t Lent a Roman Catholic thing?
One may quickly object that Ash Wednesday and Lent and the observances that have accrued to it over the years are a Roman Catholic ritual, a means of earning grace from God, a legalistic routine at odds with the gospel.
[W]e replaced the Christian liturgies of Lent and Easter with the cultural liturgies of March Madness and Spring Break.
But Lent predates the Roman Catholic Church by centuries. Originally conceived as an intentional time in which new pagan converts to Christianity could practice prayer, self-discipline and intentional acts of love as they got ready for their baptism, the 40-day period of Lent was soon linked to Easter and became a time of preparation for celebrating the Resurrection on Easter Sunday.
As Anglican pastor and theologian Aaron Damiani puts it, all the early practices of 40-day fasts “shared the same rich gospel curriculum of humble repentance, spiritual renewal, and holy preparation for the mission of the church in the world. The early Christians were learning how to put their besetting sins to death (‘mortification’) and to experience new life in union with Christ (‘vivification’).”
A few years ago, as our leadership sat down to plan through the year, we realized that our staff and our congregation did not observe Lent; we observed March Madness. We did not practice self-denial, we practiced the self-indulgence of Spring Break retreats to the ski slopes or to the beach. We still lived as liturgical creatures, but we replaced the Christian liturgies of Lent and Easter with the cultural liturgies of March Madness and Spring Break.
So to invite our church family into an intentional observance of Lent, we launched our first Ash Wednesday service.
Our first Ash Wednesday
For that first year, we knew we needed to keep it simple, and that we needed to prepare our people for what they were about to experience.
We planned a simple service and invited the whole church, infants to senior saints, to participate. We reached out to families with an explanation of what would happen, and we met with concerned individuals one-on-one to reassure them that we hadn’t “gone Catholic.” We invited people to attend the service and to participate only to the extent they were comfortable.
In the service itself, our children’s choir led us in a recitation of Psalm 51 and sang a setting of the same psalm. We read from Isaiah 58 and Matthew 6 and prayed a long Litany of Repentance together. We spent long moments in silence and we sang together. We preached a short sermon from Lamentations 1:12 and went back and forth speaking directly to children and directly to adults.
[I]n no other pastoral moment have I found myself so intimately connected to my congregation, literally touching the faces of the flock.
We wanted our people to understand that Lent is not an obligation and not a burden: it’s an opportunity to physically and tangibly be reminded of our human condition, of our own frailty and of the depth and cost of our own sinfulness.
We hoped our people would feel, at a physical level, that we are living in the space between the already and the not-yet, the space between our redemption and our re-creation. After the short sermon, we gave people an opportunity to respond as they were ready, to receive the ashes on their forehead, and to take communion. Many did both, some did one or the other and still others silently prayed in their seats.
After the service, one woman told us, “When we came to Faith Church (EFCA), we stayed because of the choir and the excellent preaching. There was a void in beauty, but we just thought we had to choose between those beautiful things and real preaching. But the service Wednesday was one of the most meaningful and moving that I have participated in anywhere at any church.”
Another told us she came to the service ambivalent, having always associated this kind of service with Catholic and mainline churches. But receiving the ashes on her forehead gave her a sense of her own sinfulness and served as a public confession of her need for a Savior. Putting the symbol of the cross on her forehead helped her feel powerfully connected to the global church—especially the persecuted church, where believers who marked themselves with crosses have been publicly martyred.
One of our older saints reflected that he couldn’t remember a service at Faith in the fifty years he’s been a member that included more participation by families, while another lauded the service for treating children as “full partners with us in our worship.”
Our children’s workers, too, have long used visual aids and physical objects to teach children. They loved the chance for the whole church to learn to teach children through tangible symbols, “just like the Passover!” as one teacher told me.
But maybe more than anyone else in the service, I found myself profoundly moved. As pastors, we are called into some of the most intimate spaces in a person’s life. We are present at births and deaths, in grief and celebration, amidst pain and joy, but in no other pastoral moment have I found myself so intimately connected to my congregation, literally touching the faces of the flock.
I fought back tears as a dear friend fighting cancer knelt in front of me, and I applied the ashes to her forehead, whispering, “Remember you are dust and to dust you will return.” She responded with an “amen,” then struggled to her feet and moved to the table to receive communion.
I had just marked her with the evidence of her death in the shape of her life, but she moved from grief to grace, from ashes to the communion table.
The service viscerally, physically, bodily reminds us of the truth of our existence: that indeed, we are dust.
Next in line a young family knelt with their infant daughter. The parents visible paled as I applied the ashes to their child’s forehead and whispered to them, “Remember, she is dust, and to dust she will return.”
But I couldn’t hold back my emotions when my own wife and daughter knelt in front of me. I choked up as I told my wife, told my ten-year-old girl that they are dust and will one day return to dust. I was telling them that one day I would lose them, and I felt an almost overwhelming grief and anger.
Which is, in many ways, the point. As Tish Harrison Warren puts it in Prayer in the Night, Ash Wednesday “is utterly counter-cultural. Into our shiny, privileged American optimism the ancient church speaks. She forces us to face hard facts. Amid the temptation to a trite denial of mortality, I stand before the church with an unavoidable truth: ‘Don’t forget,’ I say, ‘we are dust. You and I and everyone we know will die. The stuff we live for is fleeting. Hold on to what’s real.’”
Holding on to the real
This is the true gift of Lent, and of Ash Wednesday. The service viscerally, physically, bodily reminds us of the truth of our existence: that indeed, we are dust. And one day we will all return to dust. The things we long for and cling to will one day disappear.
There is only one real that will last: our resurrected life in Christ, a life we uniquely celebrate on Easter morning.
And in the weeks leading up to that great Resurrection Day, we can observe the “bright sadness,” the eucatastrophe that is Lent. InterVarsity Christian Fellowship director of Graduate and Faculty Ministries Bobby Gross writes, “Yes, during these weeks we become especially mindful of the sinfulness that alienates us from God, indeed, of the human evil that nailed Jesus to those rough beams. And this we lament with sadness. At the same time, we understand that by his death Jesus secured for us forgiveness and eternal life. We are like prisoners whose release draws near or refugees on our way back home or patients for whom the cure is working. Lent is sobering, but it leads to Easter!”
On Super Bowl Sunday, I was hard-pressed to tell you who was playing in the game, and I certainly wasn’t wearing any allegiances. My wife’s shirt for the day simply read, “I just hope both teams have fun.” But I understand the deeply human impulse to declare an allegiance, to make our identities visible on our bodies.
And on this year’s Ash Wednesday, I will once again fall to my knees to receive the ashes on my forehead—the symbol of my death in the shape of my life—and will enter again the Lenten spring in which “winter is giving way to summer—life and sunrise and a great feast are ahead. Each day’s light is longer than the last” (The Good of Giving Up).
We are moving from grief to grace. That is real, and it’s a reality more real than anything this world can offer.
If you’re interested in learning more about Lent and consider introducing a Lenten practice in your own church, here are a few resources I have been blessed to learn from.
- Ash Wednesday: Dignity, Depravity and Destiny
- Lent Leads to Easter
- “The Good of Giving Up: Discovering the Freedom of Lent,” Aaron Damiani
- “Living the Christian Year: Time to Inhabit the Story of God,” Bobby Gross
- “Calendar: Christ’s Time for the Church,” Laurence Hull Stookey
- “Lent: The Season of Repentance and Renewal,” Esau McCaulley
- “The Anglican Book of Common Prayer,” Special Liturgies of Lent and Holy Week
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