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Finding God in the Story of Your Life

Ash Wednesday: Spring Cleaning for the Soul

Patches of grimy snow are still scattered on my lawn. Winter is not over, but I’m stirred within somehow. I want to do a little spring cleaning. Not in my house. Anyone who knows me knows that I’m rarely motivated in that way.

No, I want to spring clean my soul. I’m not sure, but I think Lent might provide that opportunity.

The Lenten season arrives, for most evangelicals, as a barely acknowledged blip on the radar screen. Easter is a big deal. Holy Week, the week before Easter, is important. But the seven weeks preceding it are not that different from any other weeks.

I go to a church so large that they have reserved seating for each of the six Easter services. Thousands attend to celebrate the resurrection of Christ.

But we barely give a nod to Ash Wednesday. While there happens to be a service tonight, it’s only because the regular midweek worship service is always on Wednesday. We don’t do ashes.

To our credit, we make a pretty big deal of Good Friday, at the end of Lent. We have a somber service focusing on Christ’s death. We use Friday night and Saturday to reflect and prepare our hearts for Easter.

The Catholic and Anglican traditions try to give Lent its due. Other denominations, especially Lutherans and Presbyterians, also observe the Lenten season. For many in these traditions, the 40 weekdays between Ash Wednesday and Easter is a deeply meaningful time of spiritual renewal.

In college, when I fancied myself a radical, I followed all the other campus radicals at my conservative evangelical college, and began attending an Episcopal church.

That year, I experienced Lent for the first time. The cross is draped in purple, and the liturgy is purposely devoid of the word “Alleluia!” from Ash Wednesday until Easter morning. On that day, the mourning drape is removed from the cross, and the church is full of light and flowers. Singing out “Christ has died, Christ has risen, Christ will come again! Alleluia!” felt deeply significant because we had fasted from those words for so long.

Still, it is easy to slip into legalistic interpretations of Lent. I remember having dinner with a Catholic friend who ordered lobster when we ate out on Friday during Lent, explaining that she was “fasting” and therefore could not have steak or even chicken. I’m not so sure the lobster tail with butter helped her identify with the sufferings of Christ, but she was dutifully following the “fish on Friday” rule.

Obviously, such illogical legalism has obscured the meaning and purpose of Lent. And the Bible never mentions Lent as a commandment, although Jesus does talk a lot about fasting. Come to think of it, when I was growing up I don’t ever remember hearing a sermon on fasting, either. It’s not surprising that evangelicals, who emphasize grace and freedom in Christ, dropped the self-denial practices somewhere along the way.

Still, I am drawn to the idea of Lent, if not necessarily to its actual practice. If only it were, say, a weekend, instead of 40 dreary winter days, it might be more palatable. I can give up anything for a weekend.

Traditionally, Lent is a time of penitence and fasting, when Christ’s followers prepare for the celebration of Easter. Through self-denial, we identify with the sufferings of Christ, we remember his 40-day fast in the wilderness. We repent. On paper, these sound good. However, to actually engage in fasting, self-denial, or suffering, that’s another story. It seems it would be tedious at best, downright painful at worst.

So why bother? Lent is not really a celebration, but rather a preparation. I want to establish a rhythm of life, where times of penitence and self-examination ebb and flow with times of celebration and worship. I want the music of my life to have both point and counterpoint.

If a piece of music has only loud, high notes, it is not beautiful. What makes music beautiful is the juxtaposition of high notes and low; of soft quiet notes and strong, forte ones; of melody and harmony. To appreciate one, you must have the other. Variations in tone and volume and tempo make music that is beautiful or interesting.

If we ignore Lent, we rob Easter of its texture, of its real beauty. Its music becomes flat, when we take away the counterpoint.

What would happen if I allowed myself the luxury of beginning to prepare for Easter not two days before, but forty days before? I’ve never thought of Lent as a luxury, but in a spiritual sense, it is. What if I were to focus on preparing my soul, to mourn Christ’s death by dying to myself, if even only in small ways? Wouldn’t the celebration of his resurrection become more meaningful?

I’m not talking about fierce, legalistic approaches. But what if I were to engage in fasting, not as a way to lighten my body, but to lighten my soul?

In her book Soul Feast, Marjorie Thompson writes, “In the early church, Lent was viewed as a spiritual spring, a time of light and joy in the renewal of the soul’s life.”

Sounds lovely. But how? Fasting is an intimidating practice to many Christians, including me. Fasting brings us face to face with our fears. At the root of it, we are afraid that if we don’t continually consume, if we don’t grab all we need and then some, we will probably die.

Rather than giving up just one food for Lent, or all food, what if I were to give up overstuffing myself: stuffing my body with food, stuffing my closet with clothes I don’t need, stuffing my schedule to the point of being frantic?

Thompson tells about the spiritual father who, when asked about fasting, said that he found it best to “eat every day, but only a little, so as not to be satisfied.”

Keeping our consumption to a level that does not quite satisfy us can, if we let it, draw us to God. He offers the satisfaction we seek.

Other writers suggest fasting from things other than food: television, for example, or vices such as gossip or boasting or screaming at our kids. Hmm. What might that type of fasting do for my soul?

St. Augustine said that God is always trying to give good things to us, but our hands are too full to receive them.

Lent provides an opportunity to let go of the things my hands are full of, to get rid of some of the clutter in my soul. Let the spring cleaning begin.