I Hate Ash Wednesday

I’m thinking about a lot of things today.

I am thinking about the fragility of life, and the ashes that will mark our foreheads. I am thinking about the Church’s invitation “to the observance of a holy Lent by forty days of self-examination and repentance; by prayer, fasting, self-denial; and by reading and meditating on God’s holy Word.”

I’m also thinking about Ash Wednesday five years ago…five years ago yesterday, actually…when I got a call from my parents. 

My dad, who had been sick for about a week, told me he was diagnosed with stage four lung cancer. A month earlier he seemed perfectly healthy and vested me at my ordination. Three weeks later he was dead.

So I really, really hate Ash Wednesday.

That’s probably not something a priest is supposed to say. But I said it, and I mean it.

I hate Ash Wednesday.

And I don’t care much for Lent, either.

I’m done doing Lent.

I used to get so caught up in what I was giving up. Don’t get me wrong, I still try to give up meat and Diet Dr Pepper. Our Lenten observances are important. But I don’t let the “observance” of Lent get in the way of me actually observing Lent.

Five years ago I learned that sometimes your Lenten practice is driving back and forth from Houston to Fort Worth a couple times each week. And if that means you have to eat a barbecue sandwich from Bucees on the road, and mainline soda to stay awake, that’s what you do.

Five years ago I learned that life is too short, Lent is too important, to let ourselves get caught up in checking boxes.

We can’t just “do” Lent. We have to let Lent do what it does.

Lent is not a journey of self-punishment in hope of a divine reward. Lent is not an exercise in giving something up only to make up for lost time when Lent is over, regardless of my family’s tradition of stopping by Five Guys for burgers on the way home from Easter services…

Instead, Lent is a time of self-examination. A time to discover that tender, instinctual, and deeply human part of me that loves. I want to learn what it is I give myself to. What do I really love? What are my treasures? Where is my heart?

In the gospel for Ash Wednesday, Jesus reminds us that one’s heart and treasure cannot be separated. “For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.”

When I name my treasures, then I will find my heart.

That’s when I have to face up to myself and, for better or worse, acknowledge the treasures I have given myself to and the direction in which they have taken my life.

Some treasures are of lasting and eternal value, others are not. Some are worth holding on to. Others I need to let go of regardless of how much I think I love or need them.

Learning to love, and learning what to love…learning what to hold on to and what to let go of…that’s the real work of Lent. That’s when Lent gets through to me. That’s when I stop doing Lent, and when I start letting Lent do it’s work on me.