On February 10th the Christian church commemorates Ash Wednesday, the beginning of the 40 days of Lent (excluding Sundays). It marks roughly 1/10th of the liturgical year and has been thus described as a yearly ‘tithe’ of our time dedicated to repentance and self-sacrifice. As grim as this sounds, it’s actually a rather positive discipline or exercise.
Think in terms of relationships. All normal, healthy relationships necessarily involve the periodic need for apologies (and forgiveness) for actions that hurt the other, things that happen in even the closest of relationships.
And with this apology we resolve to avoid such actions in the future as we seek to grow closer. The purpose of Lent is identical. For we seek to remove any and all impediments that prevent us from knowing a fuller, deeper, and more joyous intimacy with God (and others).
Too often we think of Lent as a time of pointless suffering and meaningless sacrifice. We assume God has set up a whole panoply of arbitrary rules and regulations with which we are forced to comply. It’s as if a remote, judging God simply wants us to follow a bunch of rules in order to punish us in failing to execute them.
Nothing could be further from the truth. The “rules of engagement,” as I call them, are simply those words and deeds that strengthen and deepen any relationship. By letting go of maladaptive habits and unhealthy behaviors, we’re simply allowing for a fuller expression of love, something we all desire.
In the 60’s there was a popular movie entitled, Love Story. In the climactic scene, an emotional Ali McGraw turns to Ryan O’Neil and announces, “Love means never having to say you’re sorry.” The audience swooned at such selfless, unconditional love.
Martin Copenhaver, president of Andover Newton Theological School, once countered this by saying, “Love means having to say you’re sorry…a lot.”
What if we never said we were sorry for hurting others? What monsters we’d be. No, love of other human beings AND God means saying we’re sorry repeatedly, not because we’ll get punished if we don’t, but because our hearts and consciences yearn to be cleansed and unburdened, the air cleared, that intimacy might be restored in and through honesty and openness. Such serves to deepen love and draw us closer to the beloved.
It is this that God desires from us. And is, assuming we stop and think about it, what we desire as well. Everybody wants to know a purer love unhindered by sin and deceit.
Lent is that time the church sets aside to remind us of this, our deepest desire, and to provide us with the opportunity and means to be intentional about it.