On Faith: The meaning of Lent

This week some of us wore dark smudges on our foreheads.

Maybe you were one of us.

Smudge wearers grow less each decade. Even many of those who share Christ's name graciously decline to wear smudge marks.

The smudge, of course, is ash from Ash Wednesday, the beginning of Lent.

Most of us are not really Lenten folks. We would just as soon skip from celebration to celebration, from Mardi Gras to Easter.

Lent is the season of confession, of really looking at yourself in the mirror, of spring cleaning and of coming clean.

As an symbolic act of repentance, we give something up for Lent and wear ash to rededicate our lives to the spiritual journey. At least, that's how churches have told the story.

Lent is billed as a season to get your act together before Easter. I've preached this sermon more than once.

I am wrong, of course.

Easter comes to us precisely when we are not ready, prepared or repentant. The disciples did not even believe the first news of Easter. No one saw Easter coming. Prepare as much as you want to. Easter will still catch us unaware.

God knows we could repent.

We have all done things that we regret. We have said words we wish we could take back. We have made selfish choices that harmed the people we care about most. We even have hung onto old wounds and hurts and addictions so long, they now control us. We could change the direction of our lives by turning around, letting go, repenting.

But Easter would still surprise us.

I think wearing smudges has nothing to do with the state of our souls.

We wear the ash because there are destructive and deadly things in world.

We wear ash because cancer still reigns.

We wear ash because someone's soul has been severely damaged by bullying words.

We wear ash because there is sex slavery in the world.

We wear ash because a classroom of children will die of starvation while you read this article.

We wear ash because each of us could make our own list of tragedies, terrors, and soul-killing moments.

We wear ash because Jesus wears ash.

The hurt of the world hurts him. The suffering of world causes him to suffer. Brutal words and deeds wound him. The things of this world that are not right, just, or good break his heart.

And every death is a personal loss and tragedy. He cries at the death of every star, every species, every stranger, every soul. Jesus is covered in ash.

We only wear ash for a day. The smudges on our faces wash off.

This is our reminder that one day the smudges in our hearts and the shadows on our souls will be all gone. One day the dead will rise, the broken will be made whole, the unfair will be made right, and the shadows will become full color.

Lent is the season of learning to look for that day. Our search will take us to places of ash, shadow, and death.

But Easter always begins in graveyards at sunrise. And Jesus will be there to wipe off our smudges, forgive our sins, and invite us into the new dawn.

MARK WILEY is the pastor at Mesa Verde United Methodist Church in Costa Mesa.

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