A few weeks ago, my younger son asked me at the dinner table when Lent began. I replied ‘Ash Wednesday’.
My children are patient with me, and fortunately found this more amusing than irritating. Lent always begins on Ash Wednesday. What varies is when Ash Wednesday happens. Unlike Christmas Day, which is always on the same date, Ash Wednesday can move around by over a month, from early February at its earliest, to mid March at its latest.
This is because Ash Wednesday is always six and a half weeks before Easter Sunday, which is itself, quite literally, a moveable feast. This means that some years we have to wait a very long time for Ash Wednesday to arrive, and other years it catches us on the hop.
All of this is a helpful reminder that Lent is the season in which we prepare ourselves for Easter. Beginning on Wednesday, we enter a period of the year when our focus is on our personal need of God’s help. In this way, Lent echoes the season of Advent. During Advent we prepare for Christmas by focusing on the world’s need of God’s justice and peace. During Lent, we prepare for Easter by turning our attention to our individual need of God’s forgiveness. Both seasons are ‘penitential’, that is, times when we are especially conscious of what is wrong in our lives and in our world.
Reading that, you may be thinking that this must be rather a gloomy, miserable time of year. I can understand that reaction, and I encounter it both in myself and in others, but the truth is very different. Penitence, true penitence, is one of the most joyful experiences of the life of faith. Of course, we feel sorrow for our moral failings and our seeming inability to overcome them. But that feeling of sadness is what leads us to God and the enormous relief of finding ourselves forgiven. For as long as we continue to pretend, to ourselves and to one another, that the standards we aspire to are within our reach, we burden ourselves with misery and condemnation. When we reach out to our loving God, recognising our need of grace, that burden is lifted.
I pray that this joyful liberation will be our shared experience of Lent this year.
May God bless you all,