Lent

Ash Wednesday: How Fasting and Prayer Could Change Us — and Our Country

Photo by Jeff Pioquinto, SJ / Flickr.com
Photo by Jeff Pioquinto, SJ / Flickr.com

Today is Ash Wednesday and the beginning of Lent. I grew up in a small evangelical church that only paid attention to the Christian calendar on Christmas and Easter. But over many years now, I have learned to celebrate the richness of all the Christian seasons from my friends in more liturgical traditions and from marrying a Church of England priest!

Lent offers us the much-needed spiritual preparation for Easter. Ash Wednesday is the place to begin; and that often includes fasting — in different ways and traditions. At Sojourners, we usually have a big staff pancake breakfast on Shrove Tuesday morning, the day before Ash Wednesday. But today, many of us are fasting.

Ash Wednesday doesn’t begin a hunger strike, but rather a season of self-examination, spiritual reflection, repentance, sacrifice, and focused prayer. Lent is a time to examine our hearts and lives, to acknowledge our sins, to look for the ways we are not choosing the gospel or welcoming those whom Jesus calls us to.

Questions and Answers About Ash Wednesday

Rev. John G. Vlasny, archbishop of Portland, performs the Ash Wednesday ceremony. Photo by Michael Lloyd. Via RNS

This Wednesday marks the beginning of Lent with Ash Wednesday. For Christians, Lent is a 40-day season of fasting, reflection, and penance culminating in Holy Week and the Easter Sunday commemoration of Jesus’ Resurrection.

The Rev. Arne Panula, director of the Catholic Information Center in Washington, D.C., said his experience is that more people go to church on Ash Wednesday than any other holiday, including Christmas and Easter.

Here are a few basics on the Ash Wednesday tradition.

Faithful Sacrifice

 Jesus bearing the cross, Jef Thompson / Shutterstock.com
Jesus bearing the cross, Jef Thompson / Shutterstock.com

There are so many people that have gone before me, people that have sacrificed their lives in pursuit of justice and equality. Because of this, I feel a deep sense of commitment to honor them by standing for some of the same things that they did. I am in complete awe of two things that connect deeply for me. The first is the cross and how Jesus gave his life for us all. The second is my ancestors who somehow understood Jesus’ sacrifice and passed it onto me through intense persecution.

I can’t say that I know persecution like my parents, grandparents, and great-grandparents knew. I have been back to southern Alabama many times for family reunions and visited slave graveyards where relatives are buried. This compels me to be and do more with my life. I can’t say I understand why Jesus would choose to become human, walk this earth as a human being, and then die at the hands of his own creations to save those who were crucifying him. However, I do know it pushes me to be and do more with my life. I feel like I would let them down somehow if I didn’t take responsibility for addressing injustice with my life.

My life is not my own. I am the product of sacrifice. I am here because of those who saw beyond themselves and thought personal sacrifice was worth giving up to allow justice to take hold. I am here because Jesus modeled something completely illogical on the cross and then some of my ancestors took that example seriously and repeated it. I have no real right to the life I live. My only recourse is to continue the tradition handed to me in the same way.

Dialogues with Harlem Heritage: A Church’s Prophetic Voice in the Context of Diversity

Beloved community illustration, urtcan / Shutterstock.com
Beloved community illustration, urtcan / Shutterstock.com

I stepped off the elevator and was greeted by three men with hoodies in church yesterday. My shoulders tensed for a few moments. Growing up in New York City, I’ve been groomed in paranoia and 20/20 peripheral eyesight. Yet after taking a second look, I smiled as I admired the theater props: Three hooded figures containing the faces of Hillary Clinton, Jay Z, and Trayvon Martin, with a caption reading, “We are Trayvon Martin.”

Metro Hope Church meets weekly at Harlem’s National Black Theater, so our church gatherings can often be a dance in improvisation as we’re frequently welcomed by new sets. One summer we were greeted by a gigantic “tree” protruding from center stage. It made this preacher’s imagination run vivid with all sorts of sermon possibilities.

But the hooded figures that greeted me last Sunday were a tribute to Trayvon Martin called, Facing our Truth: 10 Minute Plays on Race and Privilege. This month also happens to be the month that Trayvon Martin was born, and a month for celebration of Black History. These convergences do not escape me, nor does the distinct mission of our church in Harlem.

No stranger to dialogue on race and privilege, our church will often reflect on Dr. King who once lamented, “We must face the fact that in America, the church is still the most segregated major institution in America … 11:00 on Sunday morning …we stand at the most segregated hour in this nation.”

Marked with Ashes and Bearing the Cross

Ash Wednesday illustration, Ansis Klucis / Shutterstock.com
Ash Wednesday illustration, Ansis Klucis / Shutterstock.com

With the exception of “WWJD” bracelets, there are few times when outward physical appearance reveals Jesus followers in the public square. Other religions often require their faithful to move through the mundane activities of life outwardly proclaiming the core of their faith. For the traditional Hindi it is the saree or the sherwani. For the Muslim it may be the kurta or hijab; for the traditional Jew the yamaka or headscarf. Every day around the world these men and women move through life, often in cultures unlike their own — marked.

Once a year the global body of Christ reveals itself to the world en masse. Foreheads marked with ashes, the global church moves through the first day of Lent with the sign of the cross in plain view for all to see. In the midst of the mundane, those ashes blend with sweat and soot and reveal to the world just who is a follower of Jesus in their midst.

It is a profound feeling to move through the streets of Washington, D.C., New York, Los Angeles, Cincinnati, or Huntsville, Ala., with your deepest beliefs marked on your forehead.

The Lenten mark of the cross, in tangible form, brings the church into solidarity with Jesus’ 40-day struggle in the wilderness — the place of desolation, the place of waiting and wandering, temptation, and confrontation with the limitations of our human-ness.

God's Dangerous Promises

INVITATIONS COME. Yet an expressed desire for your presence does not guarantee your willingness to show up. Invitations require a response. Some responses indicate significant commitment beyond “just showing up.” A summons may first entail an RSVP indicating a commitment to actually take an active part in the opportunity.

Such is the case for the people of God. Invitations arrived inviting God’s people to be witnesses to the power and presence of a particular God and to become a people who practice justice and favor kindness—peculiar expectations for an ancient culture, for any culture. A requirement of this sort unsettles the status quo of cultural mores where religion represents polytheistic attributions to a type of celestial Santa Claus or divine ATM, or where religion has been privatized—set aside from public prophetic witness to meditative reflection in the privacy of our own homes with occasional festive gatherings. Such genie-worship and privatization results in a deafening silence among the people of God. As Pope Francis put it recently, “a privatized lifestyle can lead Christians to take refuge in some false forms of spirituality.”

The promises that God calls us to are promises that Michael Frost, in Exiles, calls dangerous. They accompany dangerous memories that make a dangerous critique of society.

Over the next five weeks, the invitations extended in these texts indicate more than increasing the head count of seekers of spirituality. They require a response that signifies a commitment to participating in a community whose primary purpose is to expose the dangerous promise of God.

Joy J. Moore is associate dean for African-American church studies and assistant professor of preaching at Fuller Theological Seminary in California.

[ MARCH 2 ]
Eyewitnesses to Glory
Exodus 24:12-18; Psalm 2; 2 Peter 1:16-21; Matthew 17:1-9

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Vatican Defends Pope Francis’ Washing of Women’s Feet

Pope Francis waves during his inauguration Mass at St. Peter’s Square at the Vatican. Photo courtesy RNS.

The Vatican on Friday dismissed criticism of Pope Francis’ decision to wash the feet of two women during a Maundy Thursday Mass at a Rome youth prison.

The move has come under fire from Catholic traditionalists who say that the rite is a re-enactment of Jesus washing the feet of the 12 apostles before his death, and thus should be limited only to men.

Traditionally, popes have washed the feet of 12 priests during a solemn Mass in Rome’s St. John Lateran Basilica.

Welcoming Christ by Welcoming the Stranger

The night was cold and dark as the family approached the border. Ahead of them were miles of desert that would test their will and drain their stamina. What they were doing defied the law. But they were a family, and families will do anything for the sake of their children.

The law they defied was that of Herod. The family: Joseph, Mary and the Christ-child.

As Christians prepare to celebrate Easter, let us remember that the life that ended on the cross began on the road. This Easter, let us remember that Christ the Savior began his life as an immigrant, fleeing the land where he was born to escape Herod’s wrath.

Easter is a holiday of new beginnings. It welcomes a new season. It is a time to start fresh. At the heart of Easter is a magnificent reservoir of grace. Of this holiday, Katherine Lee Bates reflected, “It is the hour to rend thy chains, the blossom time of souls.” Easter is a time to set people free, fix things that are broken, watch souls blossom — all for glory of the risen Christ.

Good Friday: How Deep the Father's Love Is For Us

Image of the crucifixion, Daniela Sachsenheimer / Shutterstock.com
Image of the crucifixion, Daniela Sachsenheimer / Shutterstock.com

The first Christians confessed that Jesus is "God from God, light from light, true God from true God." Jesus is, they finally confessed after centuries of dispute, who the Gospels and the apostles plainly tell us: God without qualification. Bethlehem's baby boy grew to be the man from Nazareth, who is also from before time and forever the only begotten Son.

Jesus tells Philip that he and the Father are one; that if Philip has seen Jesus, then Philip has seen the Father. Paul tells the Colossians that Christ is the visible image of the unseen God. The Hebrews are taught by their apostle that Jesus bears the very stamp of God's nature.

If anything we think we knew about God before Jesus arrives in Mary's womb contradicts what we see and hear of Jesus in the Gospels, then we are the ones who are mistaken, the ones who weren't paying close enough attention before he came (yes, Jesus reveals the same relationship-initiating God of holy love we encounter in the pages of the Hebrew Bible); we are the ones who have, since his decades of extravagant humility among us as one of us, forgotten the Christ.

On Scripture: How Long Does Darkness Last?

Darkness illustration, imy / Shutterstock.com
Darkness illustration, imy / Shutterstock.com

For the sake of the world, we should all be feminists. And given what we know about the role of independent, empowered women in the community of disciples, for the sake world, we might be “Christians.”

Raymond Brown, the late, great scholar of John, writes: “In this Gospel, where light and darkness play such a role, darkness lasts until someone believes in the risen Jesus.”  

Therefore no darkness, no heartbreak, no grief, no injustice can long stand where the Risen Christ is proclaimed. Jesus Christ is the light of the world.  The light shines in the darknessa and the darkness does not — cannot — will not overcome the light. 

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