Lent is a journey with the Lord, who takes us through the gates of death so we may pass into new life. Like the children of Israel, Christians follow the Lord into desert places for forty days as a kind of covenantal renewal of their baptismal vows. Through spiritual exercises, believers lay bare their souls before the Lord of glory just as he impoverished himself for them. But this Lenten journey involves not only identifying with the Lord as we follow him into the desert, but also rediscovering our place in the human community. During Lent, we suffer for the sake of those who suffer. Lent is a temporary renunciation of the gifts we have received so that we might share those gifts with others.
We begin this journey on Ash Wednesday, when we return to mankind’s beginnings by recalling how we were formed from the dust. As T. S. Eliot reminds us, “in my beginning is my end.” In his poem “East Coker,” Eliot sees his family’s ancestral village, which they abandoned for the new world, as the place where his own beginning and end intersect. As he walks those ancient pathways, he hears the music and the laughter of a bride and groom dancing, celebrating the possibilities their new union has opened. In Eliot’s mind, this familial celebration has an eternal horizon. In a way, to return home is to recall his true identity.
Lent similarly begins with a return to the ancestral home of humanity. This is the meaning of the dust and ashes that mark the initial formation and final deformation of human existence. It is a symbol of the nakedness of creaturely existence. All creatures are contingent. No creature can sustain its own existence. Our wealth, knowledge, and power has a way of hiding that simple truth, like vines covering ancient ruins that once teemed with life. But to know ourselves is to return to our beginnings and recognize our human frailty.
The imposition of ashes only marks out the road. The journey itself unfolds over the next forty days. It is easy to permit this symbolic doorway to our own humanity to become perfunctory, simply the next liturgical event on the calendar. But Lent is a kind of death, the laying bare of one’s soul through fasting, prayer, and meditation. It is a death to passions and desires for earthly treasures that do not endure. The renewal of baptismal vows places one on the cross again. This is not easy, which is why Scripture employs the language of warfare and training to describe the penitential road. We must renounce anger at this person and desire for power over that person. The fast is from strife and discord just as much as it is from bodily pleasure.
Still, believers do not only give up the “sins that so easily entangle.” Believers also give up lawful bodily pleasures. We renounce food and drink so that we may give to others. As Augustine declared to his congregation, “what you deprive yourself of by fasting add to your almsgiving.” Augustine echoes the Lord’s question to Israel, “Is this not the fast which I choose, to loosen the bonds of wickedness, to undo the bands of the yoke, and to let the oppressed go free and break every yoke? Is it not to divide your bread with the hungry and bring the homeless poor into the house; when you see the naked, to cover him; and not to hide yourself from your own flesh?” (Is. 58:6-7) There is an important link here between the voluntary poverty of Lent and the involuntary poverty of the world. Following their Lord, Christians take on the former to help those whose lives are caught up in the latter.
The Lenten journey that begins with recalling the beginning of one’s own human existence thus concludes with recognizing the humanity of others. The passage to new life runs through the new humanity that Christ’s death called into being. As we receive the imposition of ashes, we should remind ourselves that “home is where one starts from.” This is the place from which the journey “into another intensity for a further union, a deeper communion through the dark cold and the empty desolation” begins. To strip oneself bare in Lent is to imitate the poverty of Christ, who became one of us for our sakes. But it is also to pass from death to new life together as a new community, one which will rise on Easter morn with the risen Lord.
Dale M. Coulter is associate professor of historical theology at Regent University.