[NPR, "All Things Considered," March 4, 1997]
Scattered among your friends and neighbors are those now living a shadow life: people observing Lent. For them Easter waits at the end of March, but preparing for Easter takes time; time for reflection, time for repentance and reordering a life. The Church counts backward seven weeks to allow this breathing space, and begins the season with Ash Wednesday.
Ashes are for mortality. Those who attend church that day go up to the altar to be smudged on the forehead with a cross of ashes, as the priest says: "Dust you are and to dust you shall return." Worshippers kneel, contemplating the many ways they’ve failed to meet the mark of charity or humility, and mustering resolve to do better. Most will offer some private pledge: until Easter I won’ t eat chocolates and I will volunteer at the homeless shelter; I’ll stop swearing and start praying daily. This time I’ll really try.
When people in our culture take on disciplines or give up treats, it’s usually for their health or vanity. But do it for God? Why should he care? Does God really want us to deny ourselves small indulgences for his sake? It can sound like the reversal of a smarmy sixties slogan: loving God means always having to say you’re sorry.
The truth is more subtle than that. God doesn = t get a kick out of it when you pass up a chocolate bar. Making small sacrifices doesn’t pay the debt for bad things you’ve done. For Christians, the death of Jesus on the Cross is the ultimate victory over sin. A sacrifice of that magnitude doesn’t require a few extra nudges of human effort to push it over the top.
But much as we long to live lives worthy of that love, sin snares and hobbles us. We fail in a million petty ways and a few enormous ones. It’s not backward-looking regret that prompts our resolution every Lent, but the view ahead, the view to glorious Easter. On that "great gettin’ up morning," as the old spiritual says, we will see the face of God, a view so bright we cannot endure it in our confused and hobbled state. Sacrifice is exercise; it makes us stronger. We strive to "lay aside every weight and sin which clings so closely," as Scripture says, in order to "run with perserverance the race that is set before us." We’ ll arrive at Easter fortified, better masters of our distracted, complaining, self-indulgent selves.
Easter will come, and more Lents and Easters after that, stretching a life-long. It’ s all rehearsal for the Big Easter looming at the very end of time. If you really believe that’s coming…then preparing for it sure looks like a good idea.