I was first introduced to Ash Wednesday as a child. It was a big deal to me during the early years of my Christian walk because it was the day when I would “give up something for Lent.” As a child I usually eliminated chocolate or candy from my diet as my “sacrifice” for the season. I thought my practice had much more integrity about it than what my buddy did. He gave up peas – a vegetable he didn’t like!
As I grew into young adulthood, Ash Wednesday became more to me than the day that launched Lenten observances. Though I still observed a Lenten fast, Ash Wednesday was the entryway into a 40 day experience of penance and reflection. I found special meaning in the imposition of ashes as a powerful reminder of my mortality and brokenness.
My most poignant Lenten seasons have occurred when I have fully engaged in observing multiple Lenten practices such as reading a daily Lenten devotional . . . observing a Lenten fast . . . participating in special Lenten and Holy Week worship services . . . giving money to an outreach ministry and adding an extra act of service to my weekly routine. I have discovered that there is a correlation between the depth of my Lenten journey and the height of my Easter experience. Lenten practices do not make me “holier” and thus more ready for Easter. Rather, like other holy habits, they increase my openness and readiness to experience Christ’s presence in my life.
Lent is a season that calls us to personal introspection. But it is so much more than that. It also is a time that accents our life together in community. One of the strengths of Methodism is the dynamic between individuality and community. On one hand, John Wesley’s heart was strangely warmed, indicating a deeply personal experience with Jesus Christ. On the other hand, he developed a system of accountability within the context of community through class meetings and bands. We are a community of people who are on our way together in our relationship with Jesus Christ.
Lent and Ash Wednesday have survived as Christian observances because we need them. Our souls long for a deeper faith. While these special days are sometimes misused and trivialized, for those believers who observe them earnestly, they are a powerful influence for growth in our walk with Christ.
A lot of years have passed since as a child I was first introduced to Ash Wednesday and Lent. Wednesday, February 18 brings with it the opportunity to experience yet another Lenten season. My prayer for each of us is that during this Lenten season we will grow in our relationship with Jesus as we experience both deep personal introspection and rich communal life. May meaningful and life-giving Lenten experiences prepare us for a joyful and powerful Easter.
As always, it is a privilege to serve as your bishop.
Bishop Debra Wallace-Padgett
North Alabama Conference