Ash Wednesday: Befriending Fragility and the Beginning of Lent

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Today is the day I get to acknowledge that I am not strong, that I am not perfect, that I am hurt, I am fearful, I am sad, I have doubts, I feel small, that I am not a person of limitless ability or competency and that I absolutely do not have it all together.

That I need God.

Today is Ash Wednesday.

What’s more, today is the day that symbolically the public acknowledges this to be true of me too. My friends, people I love, total strangers – everybody knows the truth of me today.  The truth of me and the many others who were anointed with ashes to mark the beginning of Lent.


We spend so much time presenting ourselves a certain way, ensuring we look the way we want to be seen, expressing ourselves as we would like to be experienced, carefully constructing strength and covering weaknesses; not always out of shame or embarrassment but often as self preserving mechanisms in the face of authorities we fear will exploit us or unpick us if our faults or sensitivities are on display. We build our confidences, sharpen our intellects, polish our speech, practice positive self talk to retain courage, we face challenges and we seek to respond to hardship with endurance. And in can be exhausting. BUT Ash Wednesday is the day I don’t have to pretend or strive to be my best self. Ash Wednesday is the designated day for acknowledging that I’m just me, equal parts a very whole and happy and grateful being, equally parts, a very unfinished, fractured and fragile being – a being created and sustained by a loving God.

“Lent is 40 days of remembering that you are dust and to dust you shall return”

This is the reality I choose to remember here at the beginning of Lent. The reality I choose to bring with me as I live out the days preparing for Easter. Lent is the long calendar walk that makes the destination of Christ’s death and resurrection all the more meaning-filled. And thank God it’s a long season, a 40 day period – because, as most biblical examples will testify, it takes about 40 days for me to remember that this ‘ashy’, ‘dusty’ reality of my being is the stuff God has chosen to bring to life, that He loves and cherishes, honours, redeems and continues to sustain. These 40 Day periods and these ‘ashes moments’ in scripture all bring into focus experiences of meeting with God to see reality clearly once more.

From the very beginning the ashes remind us of our mortality, that God formed human beings from the dust, He breathed into them, and as a result they became living beings (Genesis 2:7). When God meets the ashes, He breaths into them and life is brought forth.

This is why scripture tells us many times that when our people were at their most broken, vulnerable, distraught and despairing they sat in ashes, they heaped ashes upon their heads as a way of symbolically acknowledging that if God didn’t breath into them then, into their circumstances and experiences of themselves that there was no life left for them to live.

“Lent is the season dedicated to falling apart – to ripping clothes, throwing ashes, face palming and crying out …”

Job sat in ashes at the loss of his family, David at the loss of his son, Daniel on behalf of a wayward Israel, Jeremiah within a decemated Jerusalem and Tamar during significant family dysfunction. These ashes are public declarations to God that “I am not okay” “I need you LORD” “God help me!”. Often associated with a recognition that this ‘not okay-ness’ comes from our own wrong-doing and inability to live as we would like to. There is no life left for me to live if I keep going this way, I need God to breath life into me and move me on from this place.

The ashes mark the beginning of Lent because this is the posture of someone who can recognise the significance of Easter and begin to appreciate God’s gift of redemption through Jesus. If we arrived ready to celebrate Easter on Good Friday having done no preparation or having not acknowledged our need for God we would not be capable of appreciating what we claim to be celebrating. The ashes beg us to befriend our fragility as a means to better embrace the love, person and presence of God we so desperately know and admit that we we need.

This process is not instant, hence a 40 day period gives us the opportunity to wait and ponder, to think, weep, anticipate, and prepare to have God breathe into us more than we think we are able to bear – something like life and life in abundance. 40 day periods in our scriptural story reiterate to us that God meets with us in these periods of intentional acknowledgement. That though 40 days on the ark, 40 years in the dessert, 40 days in the wilderness may have seemed lonely, desolate, empty, intimidating, boring and numb they were the times when people met with God and God accompanying them changed their direction. These are periods of time where those who went into this season came out having met with God, having experienced His presence and were changed.

“Lent is the long calendar walk that makes the destination of Christ’s death and resurrection all the more meaning-filled”

We have good scriptural precedent for taking a season like this seriously. We have good reasons to take up the invitation of Lent, a season to focus on our need for God and to remember our utter dependance upon Him so that when life outside of Lent sweeps us into these moments of fragility, brokenness, fear, limitation, lack of ability etc we know and remember how to live with God – because we’ve practiced it together with Him during Lent. I guess if we took Lent seriously like this every year we’d build something like hope, something like faith, something enduring and lasting and determining for when things are messed up, for when we’re not in control, when we doubt and can’t hold on. We’d be so practiced at living and feeling this way while moving towards Easter, towards the cross, towards Jesus, towards the resurrection that I hope when we find ourselves in the same situations outside the Lenten period we would naturally orientate ourselves in the same direction, towards Easter, towards the cross, towards Jesus, towards the resurrection.

Perhaps your understanding of lent is that God is lactose intolerant and so it’s the season where you give up chocolate so that God will bless you. Or you strive to kick a bad habit as if you needed to be holy for Christ to die for you in order to make you….more holy? Or perhaps it’s just been presented to you as a ‘weird catholic thing’ and your tradition doesn’t really partake in it. Or maybe you’re an annual pass holder and you’ve been pretty pragmatic and fastidious about it in times past…regardless here are few thoughts that I hope might  be helpful for you as you enter this Lenten season…

  • Lent is a 40 day season dedicated to acknowledging our need for God often accompanied by fasting, prayer and confessing this need
  • Lent is a season for honest self reflection and examination
  • This reflection and examination takes time. Time to push through pretences of strength and competency, time to defy our narratives of autonomy and self sufficiency, time to posture ourselves as accepting of God’s love and attention to our lives
  • Lent can feel really boring and empty and apathetic – doesn’t mean you’re ‘doing it wrong’ that’s exactly the sum of a life without God, don’t settle for that
  • Lent is the season you’re allowed to come clean and admit you need help or that you’re not who you’ve been pretending to be
  • Lent is the time to get your shit together, to cry it out and that be okay, to be angry and that to be okay, to be hurt and for that to be okay – It is good to know what Jesus is dying for – that those things are not final and we are not alone in the dark with our demons
  • Lent is the time to let God actually function in your life – just try it, just see what He can do with the whatever you’re willing to offer
  • Lent is the time to try trusting God again, to try praying differently, to keep practising faith, to talk to someone, anyone about your thoughts and feelings towards the Divine
  • Lent is the season dedicated to falling apart – to ripping clothes, throwing ashes, face palming and crying out WTF God!?
  • Lent is when we challenge our egos knowing that in our relationships with God they are futile and non-serving
  • Lent is the season for detoxing from all that we think sustains us
  • Lent is the strange interruption you never knew you needed
  • Lent is 40 days of remembering that you are dust and to dust you shall return

 

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Rowan Lewis is the Coordinator of Whitley College’s NEXT Diploma program that offers emerging and young adults a unique experience of personal development and spiritual formation within an accredited setting. He is also engaged in PhD research, exploring the ways in which religious and spiritual identity become established, lost and renegotiated in young people through their late teens and twenties.

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