Each year, during the 40 days and Sundays leading up to the celebration of Easter, Christians throughout the world observe the season of Lent.
Lent is often perceived as a time of testing one’s will — perhaps trying to go 40 days without a cigarette, alcohol or chocolate — in order to discipline oneself.
While self-discipline and sacrifice are part of the experience of Lent, I have found it more meaningful to approach the season of Lent as a journey. It is a journey with Christ on the road to Jerusalem that ultimately leads to the cross. It is also a journey where we reckon with our own mortality. That is why the season of Lent begins with Ash Wednesday.
On Ash Wednesday, we smudge ourselves with ashes — an ancient sign of mourning — as a way of remembering that we were created out of the dust of the earth and to that dust we will return. This year, we will have ashes on the table at St. Mark Presbyterian Church. And next to them, we will have gunpowder as a powerful illustration of our Lenten theme: NonvioLENT: Facing Violence, Imagining Peace — in our world, our society, our churches, our homes and ourselves.
During Lent, we will have cross-church conversations between individuals of varying backgrounds, races, ages and ethnicities about the profound effects of violence on every facet of our life today, and actions we can take to prevent or reduce violence. We’ll talk about violence in many forms, including domestic and child abuse, racial and other societal discrimination, and even our own anger.
Gun violence, for example, has become to many a parlor conversation over the Second Amendment, wondering whether the “well-regulated militia” of the amendment is intended to be government-led or government-resistant. To many, the phrase “gun violence” itself evokes immediate protests that people commit violence, not guns. I suspect we have these speech habits about gun violence because what we really dread is a close look at what it means to live in a country where an estimated 30,000 lives a year are taken by the guns so many hold dear.
Even more distressing than the facts and statistics about various forms of violence, however, is how violence is often rationalized in the name of one’s faith. Our definition of justice as retribution, our inability to tolerate otherness, our propensity to scapegoat others for our perceived offenses — these are the kinds of commonly held dispositions that make us liable to imagining that violence can solve what ails us as a society or as individuals.
Lent offers us a much-needed time of stepping out of the roaring madness and reflecting on what is true, what is difficult to admit, and what matters most. In the ashes on the table, we remember that we are mortal — our lives are finite, our understanding is limited and our days are numbered. Our mortality is nothing to repent about; it is simply the truth about who we are.
The gunpowder on the table, however, is a different matter. It forces us to face who we have become, what we believe or reject, and how far our fears have led us from Christ’s invitation to take up our cross and follow him. The beauty of this season is that there is always a place for us on that journey.
MARK DAVIS is the pastor of St. Mark Presbyterian Church in Newport Beach, where the theme of the season of Lent is “NonvioLENT: Facing Violence, Imagining Peace.”