I admitted before that I didn’t even know what Lent was until I went to college. During my freshmen year, I went up to my friend Alyssa and said, “Hey, I think you have a smudge on your forehead,” and got up out of my chair to wipe it off. I think I actually licked my thumb! She quickly put up both hands in ready defense.
It’s Ash Wednesday.
I wish I grew up with these rhythms. I’d want to feel these spiritual seasons from somewhere deep within, like the way geese know to fly south in the winter. Seattle is my hometown and I now live in L.A.: neither are known for their seasons, so I don’t have any external cues. And having grown up in a Korean-immigrant, Presbyterian church, we didn’t know American nor Christian culture all that well. Remember, my dad couldn’t spell the name, “Santa.”
To show you my ignorance: today, I learned for the first time that Lent literally means “springtime.” I had no idea.
But I like it.
It’s not winter. It’s not a shed-the-leaves-and-protect-the-sap kind of thing. It’s not a curl-up-and-die-and-wait-for-the-frost-to-break kind of thing. It’s spring! It’s preparation for the wonderful days of summer. It’s getting ready for the good stuff! The Lenten devotional I’m reading says, “Lent is the season in which we ought to be surprised by joy.”
Yet we receive that joy by being starkly truthful with ourselves, resolutely true to God. We prepare by being covered with ashes, to remind ourselves to turn away from the things we know that only encourage death and rot and poison in our souls. The soot preaches: from dust we are, and to dust we will one day return — and reminds us to know the truth of our place in the grand cosmic order. Ash Wednesday invites us to avoid a reality-ignoring, dizzying optimism, while also refusing to be sucked down into a deep black hole of despair. It calls us to a solemn hope, a sober joy.
This Lent, I don’t seem to have the words to pray myself into conviction. I’ve been relying on the words of others — no less than three devotionals at the same time. But I do hope and pray that it’s springtime. And I’m ready and willing to do the hard work, to confess what is true about me — and about God — in preparation for what is to come.