Chocolate. Social Media. Caffeinated drinks. Fatty foods. Television. If you have ever celebrated Lent, you probably have a catalog of items to select from when it comes to the discipline of fasting. For centuries, Christians have observed forty days of Lent prior to the celebration of the death and resurrection of Jesus. Jesus spent forty days in the wilderness fasting before the beginning of his public ministry. Followers of Jesus, spend the same amount of time in their own wilderness. It is a time for us to discover who we are, who we really are.
The wilderness is a threat to our self-made identity. It is the place where all the protected covering is folded back and we stand naked with God and with ourselves. We discover the habits that we use to block out the fear. We are forced to acknowledge the hang ups that keep us falling short. Left alone with our hurts in the wilderness, we are vulnerable to pain. It may not be the safest place. It may not be the most comfortable. But it is where we can get an honest answer to the question, “Who am I?”
Ash Wednesday is when we get marked for our journey. With this night, we arrive at Lent. We rub a little dirt on our foreheads as a reminder to ourselves “you are dust and to dust you shall return” (Genesis 3:19). Tonight we brush up against death. Not because we like being there – we live in a world where we try to stretch, inject, and cut out any appearance of death that tries to show up on our body. Instead we dab ashes on our foreheads in the sign of a cross as a way of saying I refuse to be intimidated by death. We stare down death because we know there is light on the other side.
It is the same reason we go into the wilderness. We know we are not living our true selves. We are not our addictions. We are not the same as that which causes us pain. We are more than our hang ups. As followers of the one who confronted the sins of humanity on the cross, we are confident our time in the wilderness will give us an honest answer to the question, “Who am I?”
Our courage to step into the wilderness of Lent comes from the fact that we know we don’t go into it alone. The promise is real, “For He has said, ‘I will never leave you or forsake you.’ So we can say with confidence, ‘The Lord is my helper; I will not be afraid. What can anyone do to me?’ (Hebrews 13:5-6).” Not for any reason, not our sin, not our selfishness, or stubbornness; will Christ leave us. If we have God’s assurance behind us, we have the strength to journey into the wilderness. With the confidence of God with us, we can turn to God and not our fears.
If the wilderness of Lent is as important as discovering our true selves, then maybe it requires something other than simply giving up chocolate, caffeinated drinks, and sugar. It could be that those are necessary habits to lay down. But if we want to get at the transformation of our inner most self, then we need to go deeper.
The people of Israel had been practicing their religion. They had been faithful in their sacrifices. They had given their praise. They celebrated their seasons of Fasting. But there was still oppression. The hungry still filled the streets. The naked needed clothed. Injustice kept away the light. The cry of the needy could be heard in the dark. God says, “Is not this the fast that I choose; to loose the bonds of injustice, to undo the thongs of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free, and to break every yoke? Is it not to share your bread with the hungry, and bring the homeless poor into your house; when you see the naked, to cover them, and not to hide yourself from your own kin? Then your light shall beak forth like the dawn (Isaiah 58:6-7).”
This year I invite you to join me in a fast from hate, a fast from indifference to the suffering, a fast from causing pain to others. Let’s fast from racism and prejudice. Let’s take up the cause of the poor, remove the chains of injustice, and set free the oppressed.
During this Lenten journey consider getting involved in bring peace to God’s world. Think about where would you like to see love overcome hate. Get involved. Studied the issue. Reflect on your role in making the world right. Be faithful and “your light shall break forth like the dawn” (Isaiah 58:8).
On this Ash Wednesday you have been marked with the sign of the cross. It is the sign of redemption for our world. Wear the cross boldly and let the people know that death does not have the last word. There is a light on the horizon coming out of an empty tomb.