And so our annual pilgrimage begins – from the wilderness where Jesus both challenges and renews his spirit for 40 days to the honest and pain-filled prayer at the Garden of Gethsemane. It is a journey that compels us to consider once again the miracles and teachings of the one we call Messiah. It is a pilgrimage that goes from great hope to great pain and disappointment – ultimately taking us into the darkness of a tomb and the silence of a somber night – as we await for light to break through, by his death-defying resurrection.
Growing up in the Hispanic Presbyterian church in NYC, ashes were not something we did to mark the start of this season of reflection. In many ways, I innocently skipped over the 40 days of Lent and went straight to Easter, with some minor attention to Palm Sunday. As a choral singer – whatever spirituality and theology I understood – was first framed by the music in Spanish of the “Old Rugged Cross” and “Cristo La Tumba Venció“ (Christ Conquered the Tomb). I still can easily hear echoes of those songs and feel the warmth of the community. We were an intergenerational choir – younger and older – helping one another learn the melodies and harmonies. That spirituality would later be honed by Easter favorites and words of works such as Handel’s Messiah or Bach’s St. Matthew Passion. Singing with the Gospel Choir, the Chapel Choir and Seminary Singers at Princeton Seminary would musically shepherd me through the importance of these forty days – along with a growing understanding of the value of both the ashes and the forty-day Lenten journey that takes us to Easter.
For me, never has that understanding and gift of this season been more important. Perhaps this personal awareness and need is driven by the deep losses of the past 18 months. Perhaps it is driven by the exhaustion of busyness that shapes our lives. But at a time when our personal life-rhythms along with information overload, hyperbole and hate often frame our cultural discourse, the language of Lent invites us to stop and engage the unspoken silence within us. Lent invites us to consider that intimate and quiet dialogue with ourselves and with God. I understand the temptation to avoid this dialogue – to avoid this journey. Not only can facing our innermost selves be unsettling, but once there, it requires that we consider changing and surrendering those deep fears, insecurities, and disappointments that get in the way of our relationship with God and our relationships with one another. Once in that sacred space, it requires ownership and action on our part – and frankly, the work of transformation is just scary. After all, as the phrase goes “we can’t un-see what has been seen.”
But I believe this is part of our responsibility as Christians – to deepen our understanding of God and self; to consider where it is that our values reflect more of the culture than Christ’s teachings. It is part of our ongoing discipleship – to allow continually for the Holy Spirit to break in and shape our spirits in ways that allow us to lead and live our lives from a place of grace and humble strength; that allow us to return to God and the true image in which we have been created. This is what Lent is all about – a time to reclaim our identity and reframe how we live as followers of the one who will take us from the wilderness through the labyrinth of this life; who will walk with us through miraculous possibilities to the dark reality of violence; who will envelop us with the resurrection light that defies death and transforms our lives.
So here we go, as individuals and as communities of faith – stepping into this annual pilgrimage. Some of us are fasting or giving up things for this season – may we do so with conviction. Some of us are using this time to add practices that reclaim and deepen our identity – may we do so with humility. Some of us will sing our way through these weeks – may we do so with a quiet joy and conviction that pierces the hearts of those who hear. Whatever discipline we practice during these weeks, may we embrace each day of the journey with intentionality. The pilgrimage has begun. Along the way, may we hear the words found in the Old Testament book of Joel calling us forward – Yet even now, says the LORD, return to me with all your heart, with fasting, with weeping, and with mourning…”