As Western culture becomes more and more secular, or to use Charles Taylor’s fascinating word “disenchanted,” traditions and practices once largely normal seem more and more strange. Large families, choosing church over Little League, or smudged foreheads just aren’t as normal as they used to be, and the second glances or raised eyebrows they create reveal more than a confusion about the thing itself.
In fact, I’m not sure there is a Christian observance that more directly collides with the widely accepted values of secularism than the “imposition of the ashes,” a tradition that goes back about ten centuries and marks the beginning of the season of Lent on the Church calendar.
Like Advent, the season of Lent is about preparation. Before Christmas, our Christian forebears thought it wise to prepare a bit, and that by diving deeply into Old Testament promises and prophecies we’d better understand the birth of Christ in the full context of redemptive history. So too, in Lent, our Christian forbears thought it wise to prepare for Holy week, especially for celebrating the resurrection on Easter Sunday.
A key distinction is that Lenten disciplines, beginning with Ash Wednesday’s reminder that “You are dust and to dust you shall return,” place our celebration of resurrection in the context of our humanity, both our mortality and our fallenness. Even if the church calendar and its accompanying disciplines is not part of your church tradition, these two aspects of our humanity deserve our focused, intentional, and extended reflection.
Of course, most Christians would quickly reply that, of course, sin and death affect us all post-Eden. The problem is, in a secular culture, these beliefs that are crucial to a Christian worldview can be subtly secularized in our own hearts and minds.
Years ago, when my grandfather was dying, he suffered terribly for three or four months. In sorrow, I asked my pastor, “Why doesn’t God just take him?” I expected him to say something along the lines of, “Well, God has His ways, and His own timing,” but instead he said something I’ll never forget: “Because your grandfather needs to know his mortality before he meets his maker.”
What Ponce de Leon once sought in the waters of a Fountain of Youth, we still seek today via genetic engineering, eugenics, and other technologies. In other words, we seek control over this world and even over death itself.
Despite our search, death remains the universal problem of the human condition, one that afflicts us all. A secular culture is led by the reality of death to fear death itself, so that we either attempt to control death or distract ourselves from the thought of it. As a result, we learn to live life in light of the moment, rather than eternity.
The reality of death should, instead, remind us to fear God. That after death, we will meet the maker of life, is worth pondering, not just at the moment of death, but constantly throughout our lives.
Theologian Craig Gay warned in his book “The Way of the Modern World” that many of us who believe in God live as if God were largely irrelevant to most of life. The reminder of our mortality in the words, “You are but dust and to dust you shall return,” is a wonderful antidote for what he called “practical” atheism.
Just like with the idea of mortality, our understanding of our own sinfulness is also under threat of being secularized in our own minds. In a culture committed, in the name of freedom, to removing the categories of “sin” or “guilt,” one quick to give away nearly universal “get-out-of-jail-free” cards in the name of sexual freedom, too many Christians lose any abhorrence for that which ought shock and shame us.
Perhaps this is why the salvation brought by Christ’s life, death, and resurrection is so often described as “a wonderful example of love and sacrifice” or “how to gain purpose and perspective,” but so rarely in the terms of judicial forgiveness and cosmic victory that Paul and Peter and Jesus Himself so often used.
Being confronted with our own sinfulness is certainly no fun, but God graciously does it. After all, the cruelest thing to tell someone who’s not okay is that they are, as both secularized cultures and secularized churches too often do. Repentance is a gift, the only way forward for those on the edge of the moral abyss. It’s proof that God is kind, the Scriptures say.
We just don’t hear these things often enough. So, thank God for Lent.