Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Here it is Ash Wednesday, the beginning of the Lenten season. Every year I'm always struck by the strangeness of this Christian observance. On Ash Wednesday Christians of various denominations gather somberly for worship and have ashes rubbed on their foreheads accompanied with words like "Remember! You're dust! And to dust you'll eventually go back!" and "Repent! Turn your life around! And believe the Gospel!"

What a strange thing. In a world where we only want to emphasize the positive, to dwell on things pleasant, put on a happy face, and act like things will always be rosy, we Christians intentionally take a real, sober, hard look at ourselves. We're reminded how fragile, how broken, how flawed we really are. It's like someone takes us by the sides of the head and pushes our faces down so we look squarely into the deep, dark, recesses of our souls to realize how empty they really are, how desperately needy we are.

But we take this stark look at ourselves in God's searching light. Although that light shows up every dark corner, it also is a warming, healing light. That's really what Ash Wednesday and Lent are all about. It's not only about our brokenness and sinfulness and the utter poverty of our souls, but also about the healing, transforming, and restoring riches of God's grace that pours into us. The traditional practices of Lent, spiritual disciplines like prayer, devotion, spiritual reading, worship, and fasting (boy, we really are loath to embrace that one!) aren't ways of punishing or abusing ourselves for our sin, but rather creating opportunity, space, room for God's grace to flow into our lives. When a potter makes a vessel, the space inside is called "the heart." And that "heart" is the empty place in the vessel. The larger the heart - the emptiness inside, the more the vessel can be filled. There's a sense in which what we're doing by spiritual disciplines of self-denial is to create a larger "heart" in our souls, create more emptiness for God's grace to fill. To make room for more of God's presence.

This is my hope for my own spiritual life during Lent. I always seem to need this annual reorientation, this opportunity to create emptiness in my life for God to fill.