Lent is a time of penitence and remembrance. We are penitent because we so often miss the mark of the life that Christ calls us to, and we spend the 40 days of Lent remembering the 40 days that Noah was on the ark, the 40 years that the Hebrew people wandered in the wilderness, and the 40 days that Christ was in the wilderness before he started his ministry. None of these events cause a person to leap for joy, to bust out cake and candles with a brass band and get down to celebrating!
Noah spent 40 days on an ark because God had flooded the Earth due to the sinfulness of man. The Hebrew people spent 40 years in the wilderness because, as George Morrison said, “It took one night to take Israel out of Egypt, but it took 40 years to take Egypt out of Israel.” Jesus fasted for 40 days in the wilderness to prepare him for his evangelistic ministry that would culminate in his death and resurrection.
We mark our time of Lent, our 40 day period of penitence, with a harsh truth: we will all die one day. The Book of Common Prayer states that you mark people with a sign of the cross in ash, and say, “Remember that you are dust and to dust you shall return.” That is a stark reminder that our time on Earth is limited and will surely end in death. This is not something that generally inspires rejoicing and celebration. Ash Wednesday services are subdued and unusal: they are subdued because we aren’t used to being reminded of our eventual death, and they are unusual because, too often, we don’t hear the truth in places where we should.
In the era of “alternative facts” we have churches where we are told if you pray hard enough and ask God in a certain way, God will give you whatever you want. We have institutions that have been reduced to promising undeliverable results, leaving people searching evermore and even harder for comforts that require minimal effort.
So what do we celebrate?
We celebrate a Church, a capital “C” universal church, that, when done right, speaks harsh truths into our reality, not as a means to injure, but as a means to inform. Ash Wednesday informs us that we will all die, but it speaks another truth into our lives: death isn’t the end. This is the best news, the Good News, the capital “T” Truth. We remember our eventual death because it is in dying that we rise again.
Yes, Christ fasted in the wilderness for 40 days and his ministry here on Earth ended with an unfathomable death upon a Cross, but 3 days later he rose from the dead and proclaimed victory over death for us all.
And if that isn’t a cause to celebrate, then I don’t know what is.