Love and Ashes: Re-Examining My Understanding of Lent


Growing up mostly Southern Baptist with some charismastic leanings, the season of Lent wasn’t a huge part of my spiritual life. But being from New Orleans, it was a permanent fixture of my regional culture. Seasons in New Orleans are Catholic in name, Pagan in spirit, and sardonic in execution. The entire holiday of Mardi Gras hinges on Ash Wednesday and the start of Lent--a whole city basking in their basest nature and most decadent impulses before starting the 40-day period of fasting and repentance. Gettin’ it while the gettin’s good.

As teenager I started to be envious of my Catholic friends whose families celebrated Lent with such ritual and solemnity. They went to mass and fasted on Ash Wednesday, receiving the sign of the cross in ashes on their foreheads. They abstained from eating meat. They often abstained from something else that was individual and up to each person to choose for themselves. I remember chocolate, soda, and “secular” music being popular items. This shit was right up my alley. To my budding Type A personality, it was the perfect way to make my frustratingly abstract religion fit squarely on a line graph. Because of my OCD, I gnashed my teeth at charismatic platitudes like “search your heart” and “see what the Lord reveals to your spirit.” My inner voice was telling me to tap doorknobs ten times and hurl myself off staircases; trying to vett God’s voice through that racket required Herculean effort.

I participated in Lenten fasts off and on for many years, with results ranging from benign to semi-disastrous. Sometimes my fasts were thinly veiled diets, leaving my far more concerned with how my body would look after forty days of no dessert than the condition of my heart. Other times I would choose something far too ambitious and cave within the first week, leaving me with the uncomfortable conclusion that I must like Netflix more than Jesus. Occasionally I would see it through and experience a half-hearted sense of accomplishment. I did the thing; I got the gold star. But sitting there in the pew on Easter morning, belly full of donuts and TV privileges restored, I didn’t feel any “closer to God”--another pervasive church phrase. I drifted from the practice along the same timeline as I drifted from the Church. Who needed one more way to feel like a failure?

This year is the first in a long time that I’ve felt interested in Lent, and I think it’s because I’m rounding a new bend on this journey of mine. Over the past few months, I’ve found myself drawn to re-examine the Christian culture I grew up in and left behind. First, I started listening to the Good Christian Fun podcast. Then I watched Hell House and Jesus Camp both in the same week (I don’t recommend this, geez louise). And then I kept going--a conversation here, a Patheos article there--because I found that I am finally able to engage with this stuff in the rational middle of the emotional pendulum. I’m not filled with fear and the urge to defend even the most egregious facets of American Christian culture, like I was for most of my life. But I’m also not reacting with an overdose of cynicism and swapping my irrational fear-based conclusions for equally problematic rage-based ones. I’ve entered some new strange territory, and I really, really like it.

Ash Wednesday falls on Valentine’s Day this year, and it feels like an auspicious alignment. Up until now, love hasn't been a central part of my understanding of Lent. Sacrifice and repentance, yes, which are part of love. But sacrifice without purpose is abuse, and repentance without grace is an empty vessel. I'm not "giving up" anything for Lent this year. But I am entering the season reflecting on Love, the capital-letter kind that brings about transformation in human hearts. The kind that, more often than not, is born out of the longest winters of our souls. The weeks or months or years that we spend cold and dormant. Sometimes it's so long that we think the light may never come. 

So here’s what thirty-one-year-old me would say to fourteen-year-old me after a lackluster forty days of no caffeine: Sweet baby angel, you’re trying so hard and you’ve got it so backwards. Lent isn’t about deprivation. It’s about anticipation. It’s about creating space in your heart for Love to take root and grow. The end of winter means nothing if Spring doesn’t follow, and the joyful news is that it always follows, every single time. Regardless of our fuck ups, our kicking feet, our furrowed brows. I would try to get her to understand: it’s not a test, it’s an invitation.