The Meaning of Lent: An Ash Wednesday Rant

This year, more than any in the past, I have noticed a lot of nonsense about Lent.  The number of silly recommendations for its observance seems to have grown exponentially:

  • Care for the poor
  • Give up plastic bags
  • Reduce your carbon footprint to zero 

Don’t misunderstand me.  I am not arguing that any of these things are not noble goals in and of themselves.  Caring for the poor is the obligation of any Christian, whether it is in political fashion or not (and not just in Lent).  Giving up plastic bags could be a good thing for us all to do.  There would be less junk in landfills across the country.  And reducing our carbon footprint is not a bad goal either — although how you do that and go to church, or light one at night escapes me — and then there is always the carbon footprint of India and China to worry about — but ok.

None of this has to do with Lent, however, and an earlier generation of spiritually wise women and men would point out that just because you avoid your own mortality and sin by focusing on social and ecological ills does not mean that you are not still running from your mortality and sin.  In fact, one might argue that the surest road to undermining any true humility that would sustain us in those efforts is the failure to begin by drawing closer to God.

Lent, starting stunningly with the obvious words of the Ash Wednesday liturgy is not about your politics: “You are dust and to dust you will return.” 

  • You are dust whether your carbon footprint is zero or not.
  • You are dust whether you care for the poor or not.
  • You are dust and one day you will fit in a plastic bag, whether you use them or not.

It is a false dichotomy to pit spiritual considerations against engagement with the needs of the world, but I suspect that the current crop of eco-socio-politico Lenten observances arises out of that dichotomy.  The first victim is the very engine of the church’s engagement with the world.  A knowledge of the two facts that are the basis for all spiritual wisdom and moral strength:

  • One, there is a God.
  • Two, you are not.

We are given to enough pride that there will never be a year when it isn’t appropriate to spend the Lenten season remembering those two pillars of all spiritual wisdom, balance, and focus.  And the pseudo-sophistication of alternative Lenten observances is not just distracting silliness, it is the stuff of a deeply misleading reinterpretation of a season rooted in the wisdom of calling the whole of our lives into question before the One who is God — including our politics. 

Lent: Don’t run from it.  Lean into it.  “You are dust and to dust you will return.”  It is time to reflect on that fact and there is a reason why the liturgy doesn’t give us any room to run.

About Frederick Schmidt

The Reverend Dr. Frederick W. Schmidt, Jr. holds the Rueben P. Job Chair in Spiritual Formation at Garrett-Evangelical Theological Seminary in Evanston, IL, and directs the Rueben Job Institute for Spiritual Formation. He is an Episcopal Priest, spiritual director, retreat facilitator, conference leader, writer, and consulting editor at Church Publishing in New York. He is the author of numerous published articles and reviews, as well as several books: A Still Small Voice: Women, Ordination and the Church (Syracuse University Press, 1998), The Changing Face of God (Morehouse, 2000), When Suffering Persists (Morehouse, 2001), in Italian translation: Sofferenza, All ricerca di una riposta (Torino: Claudiana, 2004), What God Wants for Your Life (Harper, 2005), Conversations with Scripture: Revelation (Morehouse, 2005), Conversations with Scripture: Luke (Morehouse, 2009), and The Dave Test (Abingdon, 2013). He and his wife, Natalie (who is also an Episcopal priest), live in Glen Ellyn, Illinois, with their Gordon Setter, Hilda of Whitby. They have four children and five grandchildren: Henry, Addie, Heidi, Sophie, and Drew, with a sixth on the way.