Here's a quick intro I wrote for the students in my ministry.
Disciples of Jesus observe the Christian calendar as a way of ordering time according to the life and work of Christ. The 40 day period is intentionally evocative of Israel’s 40 years of wandering through the desert wilderness, Moses’ 40 days on Mount Sinai with God, and Jesus’ 40 day fast that marked the beginning of his public ministry. Accordingly, this is a time of greater intentionality in the spiritual life, situated in preparation for Jesus’ execution in the holy city, and his resurrection on the third day. We prepare for Easter’s joy by remembering our own fragile mortality, and engaging practices of repentance and self-denial.
The Ash Wednesday liturgy brings the stark reminder (from the book of Job), “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you will return.” We are all made of mud, but we also bear the image and likeness of God. We are also a people who suffer the effects of the Fall: the separation from God and his life that brings death into the world, and inhabits our own hearts.
Our right response to this remembrance is to open ourselves to receive God’s gift of repentance. I commend to you today’s Scripture readings, Joel 2 and Matthew 6, which offer guidance on works of repentance both public and private. We seek to return to God by agreeing with him about the sin in our lives - those attitudes and practices that destroy his life in us, and mire us in bitterness and unforgiveness against others. This is an urgent call for all of us, whether we consider ourselves highly religious, or if we have drifted from the Faith. The good news of God’s forgiveness and healing in and through Jesus Christ is offered to all of us. If you stand in the Faith, let this be a time of spiritual reading and examination of conscience. If you have drifted from the Faith, or fallen into some habitual sin, come back. It’s difficult, but it’s at least simple. Come back. People fall into sin. We say yes to evil in small ways, and these small choices turn into big and habitual choices. There’s freedom in admitting that we’re walking down the wrong road, and then turning around.
Finally, this is a time of self-denial and deliberate conformity to the cross of Jesus Christ. God himself suffered and died for our salvation. We remind ourselves of this daily, and think on it intently. We pray in that place. We offer gratitude to the Crucified. As a way of remembering and walking along side him, we fast, and practice abstinence in various ways. We fast from something good in order to gain control over our actions, or simply to deny ourselves in some way, because in the Christian faith we understand that it’s actually good and needful to deny ourselves. (I would caution you, in conformity with the command of our Lord, not to share details of your fasting with anyone but your pastor or spiritual director, and the people you live with only in so far as can and will join you in the fast.) Follow in the way of Jesus over Lent by showing love to people close by that you find it really hard to live with.
If I can offer a listening ear, reading suggestions, or advice as you take your Lenten journey with Jesus, please let me know.
Remember that you are dust, and to dust you will return.
Pray for me, a sinner.