The Lutheran pastor Nadia Bolz-Weber points out something interesting about today. She notes that our post-Christian culture has appropriated Christmas with great success and Easter with moderate success. We’ve got the Elf on the Shelf and the Easter Bunny and seasonal sweatshirts and made for TV shows. But, as she says, “oddly nobody waits every year to watch the Ash Wednesday Peanuts Special.” There were no 4am mobs at Best Buy this morning fighting to grab the very best Lenten Doorbusters. “Nope. We get this one all to ourselves. Our culture has no idea what to do with a day that [majors on] the fact that we all sin and are [all] going to die.”
Lent is just too realistic for cultural appropriation, isn’t it? Nostalgia and wish-fulfillment can always draw a crowd, but what we have on offer this Ash Wednesday is neither. It’s the sober truth that human beings are turned so deeply to self-interest that we cannot set ourselves free, along with the equally sober truth that the consequences of that inward bias is chaos and mortality, along with the still sober yet wondrous truth that God in Christ has acted definitively to rescue us from our bondage. Ash Wednesday is bad news and good news. It won’t help sell products. But it’s real.
Bolz-Weber goes on, “There’s no shame in the truth that our lives on earth will all end and that we are in bondage to sin and cannot free ourselves. [That’s] not depressing. What’s depressing is the desperation of trying to pretend otherwise. What’s depressing is to insist that I can free myself; I just haven’t managed to pull it off yet. What is so wonderful about Ash Wednesday and Lent is that through being marked with the cross and reminded of our own mortality, we are free. We are free to hear the song of our own salvation which tells of Christ who offers life and forgiveness.”
What’s depressing is to insist that I can free myself; I just haven’t managed to pull it off yet. If we have fallen for that delusion, if we are here on Ash Wednesday but are all the while caught in the trap of believing that in the long run we should be able to fix our lives and be the solution to all our own problems, we will not approach Lent the way the Christian faith approaches it. We will likely take on this season as one more self-improvement project, as if we were making a sort of New Year’s resolution.
We hear this attitude all the time. People say “I need to lose a few pounds, so for Lent this year I’m giving up chocolate!” Or there’s a little poem that has been going around every Ash Wednesday for years in various versions, criticizing the idea of the traditional Lenten practices of self-denial; instead it gives a long list of qualities that spiritually mature people display, like patience and acceptance and joy and then naively says “for Lent, why not just be like that?”
The Christian answer, if we have any self-awareness, of course, is “because I can’t.” Only the grace of God can set me free from the complicated web of factors that keep me from being like that. Treating spirituality as a self-improvement project that’s up to you – whether that’s setting a goal to make yourself better, or forcing yourself to behave as if you were already better – all that goes directly against what Lent is about. And even more so if you manage to make it through 40 days and can pat yourself on the back for your “success”!
No, Lent is not about success. It’s about how God reaches out to us in love fully aware of every failure we’ve ever had, every human evil that happened today and every other day. Lent is about the bottomless need every single one of us has for grace, and God’s astonishing choice to take onto himself all the responsibility for seeing that we get it. What a choice! Instead of pouring his life out on the Cross no questions asked to set us free, he could have said “come back when you’ve learned your lesson. Come back when you’ve proved yourself better than most people. Come back when you’ve gotten cleaned up.” Instead of offering free grace on the Cross, God could have said those things. And people act as if he did. That’s just not Christianity.
We’re walking through Lent together this year at Emmanuel, under the loving gaze of this generous God who has drawn us into a community rooted in abject dependence on him. We’re taking a common pilgrimage through the core experiences that the Book of Common Prayer tells us are part of Lent. We’ll experience examples of those for a short enough time that it will be tough to fall into feeling proud of ourselves even if we were to succeed at them. And as we find out together what these traditional steps are like, we’ll have the chance to watch how they affect us, which is almost the most important part. Some are subtractions from our routines, some additions to them; none is about self-improvement, but each gives you a chance to discover how God uses moments when you face your limitations. When you may just notice how much you need grace.
I know many of you have already taken home your Lenten guidebook, because we ran out and had to arrange for a second printing that will be here tomorrow; but you can still download it today, and join in as God uses this pilgrimage to form us as a parish community. “There’s no shame,” says Nadia Bolz-Weber, “in the truth that our lives on earth will all end and that we are in bondage to sin and cannot free ourselves. [That’s] not depressing. What’s depressing is the desperation of trying to pretend otherwise. What’s depressing is to insist that I can free myself, I just haven’t managed to pull it off yet. What is so wonderful about Ash Wednesday and Lent is that through being marked with the cross and reminded of our own mortality, we are free. We are free to hear the song of our own salvation which tells of Christ who offers life and forgiveness.” Continuing on page 264 of the Prayer Book, let us stand, and together hear that song.