Why do we need Lent? David Foster Wallace opened his Kenyon College commencement address with this parable: “There are these two young fish swimming along and they happened to meet an older fish swimming the other way, who nods at them and says, ‘Morning boys. How’s the water?’ And the two young fish swim on for a bit, and then eventually one of them looks over at the other and goes, ‘What in the world is water?'”
We need Lent because we need to become aware of our immersions. “This is water,” and you’ve been swimming in it your whole life. We need to recognize that our imaginations and longings are not impervious to the environments we’re exposed to. Our desires and dreams are recruited by all sorts of liturgies that are loaded with visions of the good life.
Take, for example, the Grapefruit or Cactus leagues. What interests you most? If you’re immersed in the liturgy of Major League Baseball you pulse just ticked up a bit. Why? Because Spring Training is upon us. This is where baseball players find out what they’ve got, develop new skills, and find out what they need to rehearse for the regular season. “Lent,” by the way, is the Dutch and archaic English word for “Spring.” It came to refer to the season of spiritual “training” in the Christian year. You might say it’s the 40-day preparation for the regular season of Christian life. And Opening Day, Ash Wednesday, is March 1st.
Contrary to popular opinion, Ash Wednesday and Lent are not meritorious. God’s not impressed by our participation. In fact, it’s the opposite. To observe Lent rightly you have to be convinced that you already stand in God’s favor. In the words of Paul, “There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus.” (Romans 8:1) Lent teaches us that though forgiven we are often hungry for the wrong things in life. Lent teaches us that our time is between two resurrections. It reminds us to number our days and the fundamental Christian discipline is about waiting. Lent is a time to engage the broken beauty of the world with a heart of wisdom.
“What in the world is Lent?” Lent is a liturgy. In the rhythm of the church year Lent is the Passion—the weeks, the days, and the hours that led up to a cross and the triumph of evil—death crushing death. Looked at this way, we observe Lent to deepen our share in the cross and to know the name we bear has the weight of a cross. Our story is the gospel story.
And so, will you go to church on Ash Wednesday to be marked outwardly with ashes and remind yourself inwardly that “we are dust?” Because then we can celebrate together that we are redeemed dust. We are grateful dust. We are dust with a purpose. We are dust with a glorious future.
Pastor Brett Hartman
I’m indebted to the talented mind of Peter Leithart and his insights into the Lenten season.