Tomorrow Wednesday 22 February is Ash Wednesday and marks the beginning of Lent. Traditionally, Lent brings with it a time of cutting back, which includes fasting and the giving of alms.
In a time when austerity is being inflicted on so many citizens, perhaps Lent is being felt too much these days. Austerity without opportunity doesn’t make sense. In the same way, fasting and penance can only find its purpose when we receive the gifts of hope and renewal. This is what Lent is all about.
Lent provides an opportunity every year for each one of us to experience a sense of healing and to embrace a real opportunity to begin again. I was greatly taken recently by the tragic deaths of wonderful people, whose lives ended by suicide. In ministry, so many have shared with me personally, regarding the dreadful reality of living with depression and mental illness. Losing hope and an appetite to live is both a painful and a frightening reality. While there is no magic wand or instant quick fix to the whys of human suffering, openness to the spiritual life can offer healing, and indeed, hope.
Recently, in St Andrew’s, Bagenalstown, a celebration of healing took place, ritualised by the blessing of oil on the palms of those who gathered. I was greatly taken by the various shapes and sizes and unique sense of every palm. There is an innate goodness within us all that our God wants to awaken and celebrate. The season of Lent rightly brings with it the new spring – a time when we are uplifted by early mornings and brighter evenings.
There is a crisis of hope, a desperate need for renewal in so many structures and institutions within our society. But perhaps the greatest challenge is for our own lives to be renewed. In her wisdom, Mother Theresa once remarked: “The only life we are capable of changing is our own.” The story of Cinderella also speaks volumes regarding the season of Lent. This is a centuries-old wisdom tale that speaks about the value of ashes. The name Cinderella itself already says most of it. Literally, it means “the young girl who sits in the cinders”.
Moreover, as the tale makes plain, before the glass slipper is placed on her foot, before the beautiful gown, ball, dance and marriage, a period of being humbled must take place. In the story of Cinderella, there is a theology of Lent.
Often, before we get the chance to put on the “glass slippers”, we first have to wear the heavy boots of burden, and indeed, mountain climbing. The good news of the Lenten story is that our God actively wants to heal each one of us. Life is worth living. Life is a wonderful gift, especially when we are fuelled by confidence and renewed hope. The spirit of healing taps into this deep well of wisdom when it puts ashes on our foreheads at the beginning of Lent. Lent is a season for each of us to sit in the ashes, waiting, while some silent growth takes place within us, and simply being still so that the ashes can do their work in us.