Create in me a clean heart, O God,
and put a new and right spirit within me.
Do not cast me away from your presence,
and do not take your holy spirit from me.
Restore to me the joy of your salvation,
and sustain in me a willing spirit. – Psalm 51:10-12
If you woke up this morning thinking, “It’s Ash Wednesday!” then you’re actually a lot closer to understanding real love than if your thoughts went directly to red hearts and cheap candy. Not that there’s anything intrinsically wrong with the sentiments that fuel Valentine’s Day fun, just that – as leveraged by the wheels of commerce – they stand dramatically in contrast to the more authentic witness to love represented by the stark image of the cross, marked by ashes.
Once in a rare while, like today, Ash Wednesday and Valentine’s share the same date on the calendar. It’s a juxtaposition that does an excellent job of illustrating what is deep and beautiful about faith and what is often missing in celebrations designed to promote shopping.
But don’t worry, friends, I haven’t shot myself in the foot here, I have a classy card and a beautiful orchid for Rebekah! I’m not against Valentine’s Day, I just don’t want it to distract from the opportunity Ash Wednesday offers for each one of us to engage a new sense of spiritual intention, and to open our spirits to restoration and transformation between now and Easter.
JOURNEY TO JERUSALEM! For the pilgrim anticipating the glory of Easter, Ash Wednesday is a critically important marker along the road less traveled by. Today is the first day of Lent, and – even if I hadn’t written a book about it – I will argue that it takes all forty-plus days to be ready. If that is, we really do want Holy Week to mean something in terms of spiritual revitalization.
In fact, let’s make the word “Pilgrim” our word for the day. One simple definition is “a person who journeys to a sacred place”. For our purposes, however, I’d like us to consider a broader understanding of the idea:
I believe the journey itself is sacred. For me, faith is more about the pathway than the destination, more process than result. A pilgrim, then, is an honest struggler making his or her way along the journey that is life. For Lent – from Ash Wednesday through Easter – the pilgrim sets their heart on Jerusalem and the Cross, inviting the Risen Jesus to be a companion along the way.
So, to qualify for this journey:
- you may or may not be a believer;
- it could be that you identify with another faith – such as Judaism, Islam, or Humanism;
- you may be a skeptic, or someone who has been burned by hard-edged religion;
- some of you will come along because of your absolute confidence in Christianity;
- or you want to take this journey for the conversation, or the reassurance, or the debate, or what you might learn;
- or – possibly – could it be that your uncertainty is reason enough to tag along?
INVITATION: There are many reasons to mark this day, the first day of Lent, as the first step in a meditative, open-spirited pilgrimage. My purpose is simply to invite you to hang in there, to engage in conversation along the way, and to be willing to include Jesus as one of the company for the hike.
Where exactly you find yourself in your journey, the day we arrive at the gates of Jerusalem just in time for the palm branches and Christ’s action-packed last week on earth? Well, it’s going to depend on a lot of factors.
So I’m strapping on my sandals and I’m stepping out along the dusty road. The first stop will be an Ash Wednesday worship service with my church. If you let me know about your intentions, I promise that I will pray for you along the way.
Peace, Godspeed, and may you find the assurance of Promise along the road – DEREK
- (Read along with Derek’s Lenten classic, Reaching Toward Easter)