Today is Ash Wednesday.
That didn’t used to mean anything to me. I didn’t grow up going to church, so the rhythms of the church calendar were not a part of my life at all. And when I did start going to church, it was to a very traditional Southern Baptist church that did not follow the liturgical calendar. Easter became familiar to me, and the sunrise service that I went to a few times was one of my favorites of the whole year. But I didn’t learn about Ash Wednesday until late high school, when several of my close friends were Catholic and celebrated a special mass on that day. Though I often went with them to church, I don’t think I ever tagged along for that particular service.
In college, though, I experienced Ash Wednesday for myself while attending a Baptist church that chose to follow a traditional church calendar. I remember the Ash Wednesday services as being times of great peace for me, and at one in particular I had a very vivid experience of the presence of God with me. It was wonderful.
And so we enter into Lent. As much as I came to enjoy Ash Wednesday, I haven’t yet figured out a good rhythm for lenten practices. The tradition is to give something up. A few times I gave up soda; one year I gave up coffee AND soda. But what I found those years was that I replaced them with things that were even worse for me, like sugary juices and sweet tea. And ultimately I feel like that “sacrifice” on my part misses the point of Lent. I gave up those drinks almost more as a diet effort, because they were bad for me, and I wanted to prove to myself that I could go without something I enjoyed and even sometimes felt like I needed. At the heart of any Lenten practice, though, should be a desire to draw closer to God.
If I felt like my drinking soda was something that placed a wedge between God and me, or if I felt that by not drinking it I was more closely following His will, that would be valid. But unfortunately for me that was never the real motivation. So for the past couple of Lents I have done nothing. I read a lot of Christian blogs, though, so it’s never far from my mind. I have become more enamored of late with the idea of adding something to my Lenten season rather than taking something away: a discipline, a new rhythm for my day. As I have yet to really delve into my quasi-New Year’s Resolution to read the Bible, I think I will take these 40 days as a chance to give it a shot.
There are countless Lenten devotionals out there, and by the end of today I would like to pick one (or even a non-Lenten book…I started following Practicing God’s Presence last year and never stuck with it, so that’s an option). I’m not sure when in the course of my day I’ll choose to add it in, but I know I need to be intentional about it and carve out the space if it’s going to work. I don’t have any preconceived notions. I’m not going to hold myself to a standard of perfection. But why not strive after God? There can be no downside to giving it a try!
And tonight I will go to the Ash Wednesday service at my church. It will likely be unlike any I have attended before. The plan is to have different prayer and worship stations set up to encourage personal reflection and meditation, with only a short central time of corporate worship and the imposition of ashes. I am a little apprehensive, to be honest. But I hope within it I’m able to feel that peace of God and enter into this time of Lent prepared to seek His heart.
How do you practice Lent? What does this season mean to you?