I came late to observing Lent.
In college, I came across a book called Living the Christian Year by Bobby Gross. I picked it up because Lauren Winner wrote the foreword, and I will read just about anything she recommends. In this case, my decision to read a book she recommended changed and deepened my faith life, allowing me into a dimension I’d never encountered.
As Lent drew near, I was reading ahead, wanting to grasp the significance of a season that had always seemed veiled in mystery, something I might encounter in literature rather than something that might make a difference to me.
Bobby Gross called Lent “bright sadness,” and right away that phrase met a longing within me that I had never been aware of before. In youth group, while everyone else was singing Hillsong music loudly, I was in a corner, scribbling in my journal (or pining away after the cute drummer who never looked my way). At camp, I lived for the moments I could sneak off by myself and pray or sing something simple. Those tender, sometimes lonely moments of pouring out my heart to God set the tone for my faith life as a whole. I knew all about bright sadness.
I began to talk about the church year to whoever would listen, mostly another girl who lived in my dorm. We made plans to attend an early morning Ash Wednesday service together at a small Episcopal church she’d been attending, about twenty minutes away from our school.
I fumbled with the hymnal and the Book of Common Prayer as we started. The bulletin I’d received on the way in gave me page numbers, but it seemed that I could never quite get there fast enough to be in sync with the rest of the congregation.
At the end of the service, we went forward, row by row, to have ashes imposed on our foreheads. As the priest spread the ashes into a rough, oily cross, he said, “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.”
I went back to school with ash on my forehead and wore it all day. Those words had startled and enlivened me. I wanted to remember my dustiness all day long so that it sank into my spirit. You are dust, and to dust you shall return.
Along with being bright sadness, there is a component of reflection in the season. Lent is often associated with the wilderness. In these weeks before Easter, I was invited to think about Jesus’s forty days in the desert, about Elijah fleeing from a murderous Jezebel, and about John the Baptist, who prepared the way for the Messiah.
It is traditional to give something up for Lent. Many people choose something like chocolate or alcohol. I decided to make things difficult for myself. That first year I gave up negativity.
Over the years, the practice of giving something up did make me more self-reflective. Whether I was choosing not to shop during Lent, eschewing glasses of wine, or practicing non-judgment (the complete failure of that Lenten discipline gave me something very specific to pray about), practicing my faith stayed in the front of my mind. When Easter came, I felt the release of coming to the end of a journey. I’ve always enjoyed celebrating the Resurrection, but somehow facing my own mortality and inability to change my behavior on my own made me want to celebrate with greater abandon.
Last year, I didn’t feel much like remembering that I was dust. In a conversation with my pastor, she told me the word Lent comes from “length” and refers to the days becoming longer and lighter as Easter draws near. In my little Lutheran church, we take the season to reflect on baptism. At the front of the church, we have a font filled with water, and each week we are invited to dip our fingers in, maybe making a water cross over our foreheads. As I do this, I always think about Jesus’s baptism, and about how the Father called Him beloved in front of everyone present. When I spread the water over my forehead, I am learning to remember that I might be dust, but I am dust filled with the breath of God—beloved, beloved, beloved.
This year, I’m not giving up anything for Lent. I will go to church on February 9 and eat homemade donuts for Mardi Gras. I may pick up a Lenten book. But most of all I will keep my eyes open for signs that the days are lengthening. I will listen for the sound of birds singing in the trees, and watch my temperature gauge for signs that spring is coming. In this world, it is impossible to deny the sadness, but it is equally as impossible to deny the brightness, if only I take the time to notice.