Today is Ash Wednesday, the beginning of the Lenten season. Lent has become something of a cultural phenomenon as people from all walks of theology - Catholic and Protestant, Christian and non-Christian, even hard-core atheists - determine to spend 40 days denying themselves.
But are any of them taking up their Cross?
It's easy to see why Lent, of all seasons, blends so seamlessly well into the popular culture. It's because we made it up. It's our idea; not God's. As such, it's kind of a mishmash of several different ideas and centers around what men desire it to be. The ashes that will mark many of us today are taken to be a sign of repentance, although every time God told someone to cover themselves in ashes (usually the prophets), it was a sign of grief. Sometimes, that grief turned to repentance, but it always began as grief. We begin with repentance, not requiring something so troubling as grief as our starting point.
The 40 days to follow are supposed to be symbolic of Jesus' tempting in the wilderness after His baptism. If you're at all interested in math, you know that Easter, the end of the Lenten season, is actually 47 days away. This is because we decided that Sundays don't count. Sunday, being the day of the Lord, is a day for feasting, not fasting. Therefore, the 40 days run only through Saturday each week, then pick back up on Monday, with 6 feast days thrown into the season. In other words, we built in Sunday as a "cheat day." Not to mention "Fat Tuesday," which is one last binge before beginning the whole thing.
And then, come Easter Sunday, we roll away the stone from the entrance to the tomb, and we no longer find the tomb empty. Rather, it is filled with chocolate, beer, curse words, Facebook, and all the other things we denied ourselves for 40 days.
Hallelujah, Christ is risen!
It's a far cry from the festivals and holy days that God prescribed, from the ones that He came up with. Like the Festival of Booths - you have to leave your house and every bit of comfort you've built for yourself and live in a small, makeshift shack. Or the Passover - you have to slaughter a lamb and smear the blood all over your door frames. Even if we look into the New Testament, we see wise men at Christmas journeying not two minutes, but several weeks to catch a glimpse of the baby Jesus. He put Jesus in the grave just as the Sabbath fell, requiring men to wrestle with themselves for an entire, long day, during which nobody could possibly know what was happening. And the Sabbath itself - you can't do anything. Not even light a fire to stay warm. None of this is suffering, by the way; it's invitation. It's an invitation into a bigger story.
Jesus' temptation, too, which is the event around which we loosely base the Lenten season, was not suffering; it was His preparation for suffering.
That's not how we do it.
We force ourselves to suffer in the Lenten season, in supposed solidarity with Jesus in the wilderness, but we do so in such a way that the Cross...is a relief. That the grave...is a relief. But this is not God's story. God's story is that the Cross is suffering. The grave, victory.
Because of our Lenten season, our Easter has neither.
It's easy to get into the idea of Lent because it's an opportunity each year to make ourselves better people, at least for a few short days. It's like a second shot at a New Year's resolution, and the whole world seems to approve - Catholic and Protestant, Christian and non-Christian, even the most hard-core atheist often buy easily into Lent. But Jesus did not die to make us a better people.
He died to make us His people.
And that means we have to do more than merely deny ourselves. We have to take up our Cross.
So here's my challenge for you this Lenten season, because we've got 40-some days until Good Friday: live the way Jesus lived. Love the way Jesus loved. Speak bold truth. Speak tender love. Dare to do the unpopular things. Believe with everything that's in you. Feed the hungry, clothe the naked, visit the sick and the prisoner, share the Good News with the poor. Invest yourself in God's story. This is how you prepare your heart for Holy Week. For if you live even a little bit of Jesus in this world, then come Good Friday, you feel the full weight of that Cross. And your heart breaks.
And come Easter morning, you find the tomb empty. Truly empty. And rejoice.