Ash Wednesday marks the beginning of the Christian season of Lent, which spans forty days (not including Sundays) before Easter, the Feast of the Resurrection. In some Christian traditions ashes are rubbed on the foreheads of the faithful in the form of a cross, with the words “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.” This signifies awareness of our mortality and penance for sin. (In case you were wondering, the ashes come from burning the palms that were used at the celebration of Palm Sunday the previous year.)
The emphasis on mortality, or humanness, brings to mind the inescapable fact that we all will die, but it should also raise our consciousness about being human while we are alive. Some human patterns of thought and behavior are less than admirable, but they are part of our mortality too, as are the positive qualities that can improve our lives and those of generations to come.
One element of the human condition that comes to the fore during this season is the need for re-creation. We all need periodic makeovers, perhaps physically, but also emotionally and spiritually. In its focus on baby animals and springtime flowers, the secular celebration of Easter has more in common with a pagan fertility ritual to guarantee a productive growing season than with a contemplative commemoration of Christ’s suffering and death. It’s easy to see why: the worldly images are far more appealing than the crown of thorns, the lash, the cross and the grave. As different in character as these seasonal observances appear, they share one central idea: newness. The scriptures we hear during the season refer to God creating new things — a new world order, and new hearts in his faithful people:
“I am about to do a new thing; now it springs forth, do you not perceive it?
I will make a way in the wilderness and rivers in the desert.” (Isaiah 48:6)
“For I am about to create new heavens and a new earth; the former things
shall not be remembered or come to mind.” (Isaiah 65:17)
“Create in me a clean heart, O God, and renew a right spirit within me.”(Psalm 51:11)
“And the one who was seated on the throne said, ‘See, I am making all things new.'”
Human beings love, sometimes even crave, new things. The psychological term for the preference for novelty and novelty-seeking behavior is neophilia. Research evidence suggests that neophilia has a genetic basis, meaning that it survived through our evolutionary development because it was adaptive. The inclination to search for new environments, food sources, and social affiliations would certainly be a valuable trait for a species whose survival depended upon being able to explore and relocate when adverse climatic conditions arose. As with most other human characteristics, novelty-seeking is also affected by upbringing, culture, age, and health status, but in general it is safe to say that the majority of people like some measure of variety in their lives. Of course marketers and product designers depend on this being the case: we wouldn’t buy as many new things if we were too satisfied with what we already had.
The season of Lent is a time to focus on the parts of our spiritual lives with which we (and God) are dissatisfied, and open ourselves to his Spirit to re-create those parts: “So if anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation: everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new!” (2 Corinthians 5:17)
Spiritual transformation does not occur magically or instantaneously. The forty-day journey of Lent is designed to lead us to an enhanced awareness of the effects of sin and human failings. That awareness is the beginning of re-creation. You might think of it a spiritual spring cleaning. We know that when we clean our homes, offices, garages and other personal spaces, rearranging the same stuff in a different array creates only the illusion of change. Real change requires discarding what is no longer useful or worthwhile, and constructing a new order based on what is essential. Similarly, whatever is holding us back spiritually from growing into the people God calls us to be must be discarded. Every one of us has something like that in our life. Lent is the ideal time to identify it and make a new beginning.
Questions for reflection:
With what parts of my spiritual self am I dissatisfied?
With what parts of my spiritual self is God dissatisfied?