by ProfDave, ©2021
(Feb. 17, 2021) — Today is Ash Wednesday, the first day of Lent. Liturgical Christians receive the sign of the cross on their foreheads, made from the previous Palm Sunday’s ashes. They wear that sign all day as a symbol of penitence. I received the ashes one year and wore them with pride. Wait! It was supposed to be humility! I missed the point.
In my tradition we rarely acknowledged Ash Wednesday or Lent, having discarded the Christian Year along with all traces of liturgy except for Holy Communion once a month. It was a rural New England thing: Plymouth Plantation didn’t even celebrate Christmas! My preacher father wouldn’t commit himself to an order of service, lest he impede the freedom of the Holy Spirit’s moving. Lent is nowhere mentioned in Scripture. Nevertheless, it was the practice of Christians as early as the second century and acknowledged by the Council of Nicaea in 325 as a period of preparation of new converts for baptism on Easter. It has come to be a time of reflection, mortification and repentance – a sort of prolonged Yom Kippur.
My Pastor is trying to bring back some of the ancient traditions. He called a Solemn Assembly for Ash Wednesday. We will put our written family prayers under the altar, to be burned outside on Pentecost Sunday.
We should hold a Lenten fast from sin and from the cares of this life and a feast of obedience and the presence of God, the Pastor told us. Hmmh! That could make Lent almost as much fun as Advent! But why stop with Easter? Why start sinning again after that? The old-time Methodists advocated once-for-all repentance: cold-turkey withdrawal from sin – conversion from darkness to light, the power of Satan unto God. You don’t have to come back next year. Yes, that is in the Bible. Old-light Presbyterians, however, believed every-day repentance was necessary for every-day sin – don’t wait until Lent. That is in the Bible, too. It is also the Fourth Step in Celebrate Recovery – “a thorough moral inventory.” We do that in Step Study. It can be a little scary and a lot of work, but it leads to transformation.
The ancient liturgies reenacted confession, repentance, and absolution every Sunday. But does just reciting the words mean you have done it? I came to Christ as a child of six, laying my young life with its young wickedness at the foot of the cross and receiving forgiveness and peace with God. But many who enter upon the path to the Celestial City wander off into the bushes. I’ve been in a few bramble patches myself. Have I grown into the maturity that my years and privileges should have demanded? Or am I living in every-day denial of what I should have been every-day repenting? Or have I been every-day repenting of what I should have been sorry enough to quit altogether? Hmmh!
Search me, O God, and know my heart;
Try me, and know my anxieties;
And see if there is any wicked way in me,
And lead me in the way everlasting.
But how am I going to change? I can’t even manage a diet. The only way I quit cheese is because it began to make me sick every time I ate it. I have never even tried New Year’s Resolutions for fear of failure. Ben Franklin made a list of virtues and systematically worked on developing them, keeping a log of his progress. I am not one of those – although I do have a problem with self-righteousness. Step One: “we admitted we were powerless.” That’s me! I can tweak this or that behavior – take a different route to work or change my brand of toothpaste – but real change requires help. If you don’t happen to be God, you need Him.
I am going to need supernatural help for Lent and the rest of the year. Our humanity comes from God, but we ignored the instructions and broke it. Now we have to swallow our pride and take it back to the dealership for repair. God’s nature is holy love (not the sloppy selfish thing we call love or the snooty arrogance we call holiness). Holy love is what brought us into being. Holy love is the standard God – in His holy love – requires of us. Holy love is the standard that is written on our hearts and consciences – no matter how hard we try to rub it out. He puts the desire there. Holy love is what we were meant to be. Being who He is, He offers you and I the power to do and be what He requires. But submitting is up to us. I’m going to go for it. How about you?
David W. Heughins (“ProfDave”) is Adjunct Professor of History at Nazarene Bible College. He holds a BA from Eastern Nazarene College and a PhD in history from the University of Minnesota. He is the author of Holiness in 12 Steps (2020). He is a Vietnam veteran and is retired, living with his daughter and three grandchildren in Connecticut.