Today we celebrate the beginning of the Lenten season. Ash Wednesday, the most penitential day of the year, ushers in the “bright sadness” (to use Alexander Schmemann’s phrase). Sad because the next six weeks we shall be confronted by our sin–bright because the next six weeks we shall be reminded of the death and resurrection of our Lord.
Lent is only Lent because it falls in the shadow of Easter. The fasts which we begin today–from food, music, or other media–are not negations in themselves, but instead opportunities to cultivate hearts that seek God. We cease from eating food from the earth that we might instead be filled with the Bread of Heaven. Fasting is only Christian if it is joined with prayer. The strengthening of our human wills through the discipline of fasting is a secondary benefit. Our primary aim can not be attained by such efforts–we have no strength in ourselves to have springs of Living Water rise up in our souls.
The pentitential season of Lent, then, must be embraced joyfully, for it is a time to embrace dependence upon the Word of God and to acknowledge that it is His Spirit that produces fruit in and through us. This, too, is the meaning of Ash Wednesday, wherein we are reminded of our abject poverty, our mortality, and our wretched sinfulness before God. The shadow of Easter prohibits despair, for the acknowledgment of our sinfulness before God necessarily entails that we acknowledge the redemption which that same God has attained. Indeed, such an acknowledgment demands carrying only the burden of a joy which we do not deserve–a burden which brings us into the “bright sadness” of Lent.
This Lenten season, take the opportunity to seriously and intentionally pursue the God who has first pursued you. Prepare your hearts for Easter by relinquishing the deadly and seductive attraction of pleasures that are not rooted and grounded in God alone. Join prayer with your fasting, and the Word of God with your prayer, that you might be sustained by spiritual food. Follow hard after God by intentionally committing yourself to Him, and do so with the blessed expectation that God in his divine freedom will respond. This is the promise of the Gospel, and this is the blessed hope of Easter, which we look forward to with eagerness, sadness, and joy.