Have mercy on me, O God, according to your unfailing love; according to your great compassion blot out my transgressions. Wash away all my iniquity and cleanse me from my sin. Psalm 51:1-2
Lent is almost here. I suspect that doesn’t mean much to many of us, but I’d like to encourage you to think about this season a little bit today. In America, we are part of a “free church” tradition, where we aren’t obligated by law to attend a particular church, or any church at all. This wasn’t always the case: for much of church history, people were compelled to attend a specific church or risk imprisonment or worse. Most of these churches followed a liturgical calendar, and so the observation of Lent would have been very familiar to them.
There are two days of Lenten significance this week: Shrove Tuesday and Ash Wednesday. Shrove Tuesday is probably better known to us as Mardi Gras--Fat Tuesday in French. It’s become a day of parties, carnivals, and revelry, primarily a chance to let loose and enjoy all the things you might give up during Lent. That probably misses the point. Shrove Tuesday is intended as a day of introspection, a day of self-examination. Not a day of parties. On Shrove Tuesday we are meant to look at our lives and see if there is anything that is getting in the way of our relationship with God. Are there any idols we’ve set up, things we’ve put before our Savior and Lord? That is the business of Shrove Tuesday.
Ash Wednesday is next. If we have done the work of introspection on Shrove Tuesday, no doubt there will be something that comes to mind, something we need to give up. Ash Wednesday is the day we repent. There is a rich connection in the Scriptures between ashes and repentance. The prophet Jeremiah speaks of mourning in ashes in Jeremiah 6:26, “Put on sackcloth, my people, and roll in ashes...” Ashes were the outward symbol of mourning over sin and a contrite heart.
Lent is traditionally associated with giving up some vice for 40 days, reminding us of the 40 days that Jesus went into the desert and fasted. I know we may be tempted to dismiss all this as a ritual from some other tradition, as not something we need in our church life. But before we do that, we should ask ourselves this: when was the last time we gave something up for Christ? We have a hard enough time giving something up for one day, let alone 40. Christ calls for total commitment, and there is much that entangles us. Setting aside an annual period of introspection and repentance may be the very least we could do.
The beauty of this season is not in the ritual, though. The writer of the Psalms understood the wonderful release of being cleansed. We can trust that God’s unfailing love and compassion will blot out our transgressions, but I suspect that we need to acknowledge them, first. And we don’t need to save them up for once a year--we can practice Shrove Tuesday and Ash Wednesday every week, or even every day. Our shortcomings don’t need to be stored up for this season. God’s mercy is ever ready to wash us clean.
See you Sunday! John