Even as I grew up and Lent became more about "spirituality" and fasting as a means to further "mature" my relationship with God, it still bore a notion of self-denial and lingering guilt born of the misbegotten childhood notion that My Sin was So Bad that some notion of a God requiring a blood sacrifice was needed to wash it away... so happy to have put that childish thing aside.
So as I now know, accept and embrace the perfectly loving God revealed in Jesus, who could never require a human blood sacrifice as the price of atonement, as the price of my admission into the Salvation Club, Lent is no longer the great cosmic guilt trip.
So what is Lent then if not the guilt trip to end all guilt trips?
After years of not knowing what Lent is, after it having been liberated from the guilt trip connotations of childhood, I would still go to Ash Wednesday service, still fast, and wonder about it. Then a couple of years ago at an Ash Wednesday service, the priest was smearing oil and ashes onto my forehead in the sign of the cross and a notion crossed my mind. The priest was exercising the imposition of ashes. In my mind I saw myself looking into a mirror with the ashes crossed on my forehead and realized I had taken something on.
There it was, on my forehead, an imposition, I literally had taken something onto myself. From that moment on Lent had become about taking things on instead of denying myself things. It was no longer about denying myself things because I am a sinner of countless sins. Lent was now about taking on the challenge of understanding my transgressionss as symptomatic of what was/is lacking in my life... love.
For me Lent is now about responding to God's love and God's loving call in a very focused way, in taking on self-examination but not to wallow in the guilt of my transgressions, my lack of loving towards creation, but instead to seek out what it is in my life which acts as the barrier between God's love, me and you. As Jesus answered God's call by going into the wilderness, we too can answer God's call to enter the wilderness of our fears, our shame, and examine them and their sources in our lives and how they serve as barriers from our freedom in God's healing love.
This can be very hard work, much harder than bearing guilt, which may be why we sometime choose guilt over healing. Sometimes the examination and cleansing of a wound hurts more than the wound itself, but it is necessary for healing to occur and that's what salvation is: healing.
Honestly over the years, answering the call to discipleship has involved giving-up things, attitudes and emotions. Some things have been surrendered out of necessity, but the lasting choices have been in response to God's love. The choices of these kind have been the building blocks of the lasting changes. When one ceases to make choices because they're the "right ones" or because of expectations of some reward, emotional or material, but makes choices because they are loving choices, the loving choices begin to feed on themselves in our lives and the lives of others. We begin to choose loving as the natural choice.
This way of living, responding to and in anticipation of God's love, is the promise of God's freedom and as close to heaven on earth as I've ever known. This way, the way of Jesus, is the way in which I've found healing and will continue to do so as long as I keep taking on the promise of God's love. In my often distracted life, returning to love's promise and taking on love's promise is what keeps me moving and building upon itself. It's like how a tree just keeps building and building upon itself, ring after ring of growth, one upon the other.
To me it's not about giving things up to be better, but taking on the choices to be loving, to be well. It's about taking on the responsibilities of loving in response to love, to being loved. Whether Lent means taking on a new way to serve the suffering of the community, or finding wounds to be cleaned and healed, or in some other way to express love to God in each other and creation, these are all responses to God's call to love. After all, if we are loving more, then we must naturally be transgressing less.
What is Lent calling us to this year?