And now we begin. Primitive symbols, forehead blackened, charcoal stain left on pillowcase, the sign-of-the-cross smeared across the linen, archaic ritual once again observed. Ash Wednesday has passed. And now we begin the Lenten journey.
As always, a certain amount of ambivalence. Who really needs to be reminded of their mortality? (“Memento, homo, quia pulvis es, et in pulverem reverteris: Remember, man, that thou art dust, and to dust thou shalt return.”) Who needs to embrace humility to the point of being on their knees? Who made up this long-ago story about the descent into darkness, about wrestling with sin, about forty days and nights? Was it Jesus out there in the wilderness, wrestling with Satan and foretelling the awful truth that, sooner or later, we all must follow?
Despite my many questions, the observance of Lent has increased in meaning for me in recent years, mostly because it is a storyline that is so unabashedly true and realistic. Who can deny the fact that the humanity we share is a flawed humanity, that the journey we tread is often dark and lonely? Lent is our attempt, both collective and individual, to come face-to-face with our delusions, our self-created happy-ever-after stories, our reluctance to view the person in the mirror with utter honesty.
It would be nice if we could divide the world into a simple binary: the good and the bad, the saint and the sinner, the holy and the satanic. God knows we are trying our best to do so right now, all of us retreated into our narrow tribal identities. Blame is the game we are all playing. But as Christians we know we are not divided; we are united, not just by our potential for goodness, but by our flawed humanity, our quickness to judge and defend, our petty self-assurances. We carry with us the intuitive understanding that, until we are able to confess our blindness and our lameness and our conceit, we will be unable to rise to the goodness planted deeply within us.
It just seems to me that this year we need Lent more than ever. What if we were to mark everything with the sign of the cross: our politics, our treasured ideologies, our presumed goodness? It would be a messy deal for sure, but perhaps if we could all find ourselves on our knees, sharing our brokenness, we could rise together as the poor forgiven creatures we are and sit once again at the banquet table of the King.
Rev. Don Underwood