Today is Ash Wednesday, the first day of the Lenten season. Today we mark the beginning of the pilgrim’s journey toward Easter, following Jesus as he goes before us, through his sorrows, and into the joy of his eternal life. “Giving up” is the phase most often associated with Lent. During this season, participants commonly choose to give up something for the sake of learning a deeper life, a deeper wisdom. What is often given up is something tangible like chocolate or TV. But it can be anything really. One can give up on a destructive attitude or way of speech; one can choose to give up on a habit or dependency. Whatever the case, this practice of self-denial becomes a profound way in which to learn the truest life. Perhaps it sounds strange to us, but the practice of self-denial teaches us what it means to walk the way of love. Love is not selfish and so it cannot live by self-gratification; love is self-giving.
Merely giving something up is only part of the wisdom here. We should give up in order to give to. To give something up allows us to make room for the needs of others, whatever that might be. You might give up on an expenditure in order to share your resources with someone. Or, you might give up defending yourself in order to seek the defense of another. Your imagination can supply the possibilities, but for me, this is what participating in Lent means.
During the Lent season, as we walk out the days towards Easter, we come to realize that the story of Jesus is profoundly a story of self-denial and self-giving. Paul writes to the Ephesians: “Follow God’s example, therefore, as dearly loved children and walk in the way of love, just as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us as a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God” (Ephesians 5:1-2). The way of Jesus, the way of love, is found in the willingness to put the needs of another ahead of your own. The confusion about love in our times is found precisely in the idea that love is first of all self-gratification before self-giving. But love’s greatest joy, and greatest satisfaction, is the well-being and happiness of the beloved.
Love is the willingness to make sacrifices, big and small. And don’t neglect the small ways that love expresses itself: a kind word, a simple expression of thanks. So the lenten journey involves the small reminders and daily practices of giving up. By these small actions we teach ourselves what this way of love feels like, and what this way of self-denial is meant to produce. And don’t fool yourself -- the practice makes a difference.
I invite you to consider the thought that you could give something up for the sake of love, for the sake of becoming more like Jesus. We give up in order to give. It was and is the way of Jesus.
Tonight we are taking time to mark the beginning of this season with an Ash Wednesday event at Westside King’s Church. Consider this your invitation to begin the 40 day journey to Easter, the 40 days that carry us forward to the most exuberant of hopes. Tonight, for 40 brief minutes from 7:10 to 7:50 pm, we take time for two thoughts, two prayers, two songs, and the marking of ashes. We have prepared a devotional resource which will be available, a way to live thoughtfully and prayerfully as you make your way towards Easter.
If you come to our event tonight, you will walk out tonight with a smudge on your forehead, a sort of strange cosmetic. While smudges are to be washed off, you may choose to wear it for the evening in a kind of thoughtful reverence. Cosmetics are made for the adorning of the face, to make someone their most beautiful best. But this kind of cosmetic is meant to remind us of the beautiful soul, the heart that embraces love and truth and goodness.