Get ready for Lent? After all we have been through for the past two years? Seriously?

It feels like we have had a perpetual Lent in these months of upheaval and now undertaking spiritual practices for the sake of renewal may seem more onerous than in other years.

All our means of engaging life have been strained and sifted, some turned to ash, and we are not sure what more we might endure. Embracing Lent may be, however, just what we need as we continue to move toward wholeness.

As we prepare for the Lenten pilgrimage, we brace ourselves for what we might learn and experience through faithful practices that call us back to God. We begin with the smear of mortality on our foreheads, signifying that we are dust and to dust we shall return.

Like matrimony, Lent is not to be entered into lightly, which is why we shudder at the implications. Some of us know this dusty pathway well; others may be embarking on this 40-day journey with hesitance, even fear.

Any time we deliberately seek to draw near to God, we are welcomed — especially when we acknowledge our radical dependence as frail children of dust, even if the light of the Holy presence reveals things we would rather not face.

Ash Wednesday texts invite us to sound an alarm (Joel 2:1) and return to God “with fasting, with weeping, and with mourning” (verse 12). Daily, our news sounds an alarm; discerning our times beside the Holy One is the recalibration the prophet invites. Joel’s description is apt.

Fasting from destructive habits, whether they be dietary or simply our regular complaints, is a step toward wholeness. Releasing anger and making room for joy is a worthy practice. Weeping and mourning rightly accompany genuine confession, a key practice of Lent.

When we acknowledge what we have done — and what we really are capable of in our shadow selves — we express tangible grief. In this, we return to self with new insight, which is also a returning to God. Acknowledging our sin requires humility and facing those things within that betray is a stringent moral habit.

Psalm 51 is the great penitential psalm, full of anguish and the longing to be delivered from sinful pathways. It properly notes that although our sin is against others and ourselves, underneath there is always the wounding of God in our destructive patterns.

The Psalmist confesses: “Against you … have I sinned and done what is evil in your sight” (verse 4). Of course, the writer knows that sin against neighbor is harmful, but the true cost is the erosion of comfort in the presence of God.

Second Corinthians 5:50-6:10 urges the believer to be reconciled to God. Believers understand that there is an initial turning toward God, who through Christ has offered “a general pardon to the whole world” (Jürgen Moltmann), yet we know that we must realize this reconciliation over and over if we would “become the righteousness of God” (verse 21).

This text reminds us that the work of salvation in our lives is lifelong and necessitates our labor alongside God in order that we not “accept the grace of God in vain” (6:1). As Paul recounts his own suffering in his apostolic calling, he encourages others to faithful, costly service.

The Gospel reading, Matthew 6:1-6, 16-21, offers counsel for the ways the Lenten practices are to be undertaken. We are not to practice our piety before others, but in secret. (We make an exception on the day we are cross-signed with ashes). Whether fasting, praying or giving alms, we are not to draw attention to ourselves.

Now, it is hard to do good for others without trumpeting it. We all seem to want credit for our actions, but this is usually self-serving rather than being a humble exemplar. Even withstanding temptation can be a witness, but usually this remains hidden from most.

Thomas Merton highlighted the significance of this practice while one continues in faith in his spiritual autobiography The Seven Storey Mountain. He wrote: “Who knows how many souls are depending upon your perseverance? Perhaps God has ordained that there are many in the world who will only be saved through your fidelity to your vocation.”

As the wilderness of Lent beckons, the focus must be returning to God so that we might be renewed in our love.

Wilderness is all about the heart. We cannot hide from God in the wilderness; its starkness puts all in bold relief as we see our patterns for what they are. It is a place of risk and radical trust.

Yet, entering the paschal mystery with Jesus there prepares us for deepened living as we entrust all that we are and will be to God’s mercy.

Editor’s note: This article is the first in a “Lenten Lectionary” series for Lent 2022. Each week, an article will be published reflecting on one or more of the lectionary texts for the forthcoming Sunday. Two articles will appear this week – today’s Ash Wednesday reflection and tomorrow’s article on the lectionary texts for the first Sunday of Lent.

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