You know that feeling of returning to a place that you’ve been away from for a while? Much about it is familiar – even nostalgic – the way it looks, smells, and feels. And this initial familiarity is comforting, until you take it all in and realize that something is different.
A friend of mine has a farm in Tennessee, which has become one of those places for me. I’ve been there a handful of times over the course of several years, and each trip has been spaced apart enough that major life stuff has happened in between. Since I’ve known it, very little about the farm has changed. The house, the lay of the land, even some of the rituals we’ve developed in going there are all intimately familiar. I can pinpoint spots that remind me of specific people or jokes or meals – things I haven’t otherwise thought of in years. And despite all of this, each time I go there, it feels a bit different, not because the farm has changed, but because I have. Who I am and the things I carry affect how I perceive the world, even the places I know best.
Ash Wednesday is also one of those places for me. In some form or another, I’ve practiced (or at least been very aware of) Lent for as long as I can remember. Each year, Ash Wednesday comes and the rituals are largely the same. There are great expectations for fasts and disciplines, and the challenge and fulfillment that accompany them. There are ashes, forged from palms and smeared on foreheads. There are those hallow words – to dust you shall return – reminding us of our frailty. As hard and somber as is all is, for many of us it’s comfortably familiar.
But like a friend’s farm, or an alma mater, or a childhood home, each time we return to Lent, we’re a little bit different than before. More of life has happened, and the beauty and brokenness that comes with that changes how we see things, including and especially this season.
It would be fitting here to remark about how with the education and life experience I’ve accumulated so far, I now understand Lent in a way that’s super cerebral and meaningful. But the truth is far more childish: in 2016, I come into Lent just as I’m starting to understand how much I need it.
Seasons like Lent exist for us, in all sorts of ways. Fasting – the practice of intentionally and carefully abstaining from something – is a common part of Lent, and it’s something I’ve been thinking about a lot over the past few weeks. I’ve been weirdly fascinated by this concept for a while now, and am usually suspiciously comfortable with jumping into a fast. So I’ve been psychoanalyzing myself thinking through why that might be.
In no small part, I suspect it’s because restrictions are actually really refreshing. Like many of you, I am a person of privilege in the developed world in the 21st century, which basically means that I can have whatever I want, whenever I want it. Any kind of material need can be met with the click of a button. Any strange lifestyle or opinion can find immediate support with…the click of a button. It’s liberating, empowering, overwhelming, and terrifying. Where choices abound, it’s wonderfully stabilizing to have a major institution say that from February 10 to March 26, we may not eat chocolate, drink whiskey, check Facebook, etc. In a small part of my life, what I want or how I feel no longer matters – something much bigger does.
But more importantly, I’ve learned that the best part of fasting isn’t success, but failure. We live in a world where we don’t talk about failure. We delude our colleagues, friends, children, and selves into believing that they are successful when they are not. When failure is undeniable, we don’t talk about it. This is why we so rarely hear about things like addiction, mental illness, strained relationships, struggles at work – many shortcomings (real or perceived) are nearly taboo. This is a very small step, but let me be clear: between now and Easter, I will fail. It’s almost inevitable and I anticipate it with ironic eagerness. Jesus tells us over and over again that in God’s Kingdom, pride gets us nowhere. Fasting and failing serves as a simple reminder that despite our best intentions and greatest strengths, we are weak. Lent offers us a vital lesson in humility. We need this. I need this.
As we return to Lent, I invite you all to embrace the season longingly. If you can, go to church today – those ashes are jarring and life-giving. And feel free to join me in working through my church’s Lent prayerbook, which you can snag for free here.