Today is Ash Wednesday, the first day of Lent and the beginning of what could be 40 long days for those of you who choose to give something significant up. On this day, the believer’s forehead is marked with ashes in the shape of a cross, echoing the ancient Near Eastern tradition of throwing ashes over one’s head to signify repentance before God.
As most of you know, “to repent” essentially means “to turn around,” or to stop going in one direction and to start going in another; the idea being that we have a strange tendency to walk away from God, or to live in a way that doesn’t exemplify our humanity or our image-bearing nature, and we frequently need to change our ways so that we move back into the wake of Jesus.
When I woke up this morning I began to think of what I could give up that would be significant … what is hindering me from living into my full, image-bearing humanity. And the sad reality is that there was no shortage of hindrances that came to mind. But lent isn’t about eradicating all the sin in your life in one fell swoop … it is about acknowledging our captivity to other kingdoms and, out of submission to the true king, acting on the belief that Jesus has offered us a better kingdom … a better way of life than the one we have currently chosen for ourselves.
So, one of the things that I will be giving up this year for lent is fast food … and it may not seem all that significant, and you could argue that fast food, in and of itself isn’t a bad thing, but I know that I have become reliant on it because of how easy and efficient it is. So giving up fast food, while obviously allowing me to become a healthier person, could also encourage me to share more significant meal time with people, to practice the important work of actually shopping and cooking for myself, and possibly even freeing me of the culturally conditioned belief that I should never experience even a little bit of hunger without responding to it immediately.
The thing is, tons of people will give up fast food for lent this year and that is a good thing … but it can easily become an exercise in vanity … an excuse for losing weight with no real thought of breaking a sinful cycle for the sake of the Kingdom of God. And I believe that, in many ways, this misses the point of repentance. Because repentance doesn’t simply mean to stop in your tracks; it means to start moving in a different and better direction … it means choosing a whole different path.
My encouragement to you this lenten season is to be thoughtful and prayerful if you do choose to participate in the 40 day fast, and to believe, though it may be difficult, even frustrating and annoying at times, that even a slight, thoughtful changing of direction can have a significant impact on your life as well as on your relationships with the people around you and with your God.
May you be led into the desert expectantly!