Today we enter the season Lent: the 40 days of accompanying Jesus in the final stages of his earthly life; the final stretch of the road that took him towards the unspeakable agony of Passion, and yet also culminated with glory in wrestling us free from the grip of evil. We take the symbolic number of 40 from the days of his temptation in the wilderness (right after baptism, beginning his public life), but over lent, we are reflecting on and accompanying him on its final year, beginning with transfiguration and the last journey down to jerusalem, last entry into it, and finally the journey into the tomb.
In the history of Christianity, this forty-day period began as the ultimate stage in the preparation of new believers in Christ who, after spending up to three years in spiritual formation, would, traditionally, be baptised on the night before Easter. It probably did not take very long for the rest of the Church to realize that every believer, new and old, young and aged, could benefit from setting aside some time for spiritual examination, so that to understand and overcome the roots of our recurring temptations. But of course, over the centuries, the rites and observances, as well as the theological emphases associated with them, have come to vary somewhat within the breadth of our Christian tradition.
For instance, one thing that I do miss from my Russian childhood is being permitted to eat my grandma’s wonderful blinchiki (crepes) every day for a whole week preceding Lent, as opposed to for just one little pancake supper! The so-called Cheesefare Week was one of the very few “religious” traditions that I’ve seen in my home; for of course, we did not stop to consume dairy or meat after this week, as my family is quite secular and decidedly carnivorous. However, there is one other tradition that many, even non-religious Russians remember to observe at the end of this pancake extravaganza. You see, on the Sunday before Lent, in my family, we’ve always began the day by asking for each other’s forgiveness, particularly for those offences we might have committed unwittingly. And we would respond by saying, “God forgives”.
I still like this tradition very much because it highlights two of my theological assumptions regarding the nature of sin: 1) much of the evil in this world exists outside of our intentions and thus, we all offend each other much more often than we know of; and 2) every offence we commit against each other is committed also against God. These are helpful to keep in mind as we go through these next 40 days, because one of the greatest temptation that awaits us in Lent is to dutifully take a spiritual inventory and then say, “Well, frankly, I’ve been doing ok… Now, King David, yes, he had every reason to write Psalm 51…” And it’s true: unlike David, most of us are not guilty of rape, murder, adultery, and eliciting the death of his baby. However, it is important that we all say, together with David, “against God alone I have sinned”. For many of us, the first reaction to this verse is indignation. Does David try to minimize the wrongs he has done to all these people? No. He does say, “for I know my transgressions”; although whether this realization begins to settle in before or after he is confronted by the prophet Nathan is not certain. Perhaps, in David’s culture a king did have such an absolute power over his subjects, particularly women, that he felt he was only taking what was rightfully his. And so Nathan does not choose to challenge David by saying that he has wronged Uriah’s family; these words could have fallen on deaf ears. But what Nathan makes perfectly clear is that in acting upon such assumptions, David has “despised God”.
My observation is that the need to appease a guilty conscience is universal, but an awareness of the state of disregard for our Creator is not. Each human begins to develop a sense of shame from a very young age. Out of shame, we cling to our rites and rituals, and invent our own sacrificial system, just as the first humans began to sacrifice animals. For many of us, the rituals associated with Lent – prayer, fasting, almsgiving – are, in fact, a way of making amends with ourselves, rather than with God. But todays readings warn us that God does not delight in such sacrifices. Instead, he calls us to a deeper conversion – to acknowledge not how bad and how many times we have done something wrong, or but much more fundamentally so, our status of creatures. “Creaturely-ness” is not worthlessness; yet, it is in our nature to offend God and one another more often than we even know of.
So if we desire, in David’s words, a clean heart, a renewed spirit, and the lips ready to worship, we must recognize that these come from God as a gift to his creatures. And therein is the significance of our Ash Wednesday. The ashes on our foreheads remind us of our humanity (and mortality!); they symbolize both the matter out of which our bodies were made, and the dust that will be left once our souls depart from us. Today, we come to repent of having forgotten this truth, and in doing so, having despised our God. We come as a community, as Joel once called the people of Israel, “to assemble the aged; gather the children, even infants at the breast… and let the priests weep”. For it is our own repentance that enables us to forgive others.