Ash Wednesday is the beginning of Lent, a six week period traditionally set aside for fasting, prayer and repentance in preparation for the celebration of Easter. Lent allows for six and a half weeks between Ash Wednesday and Easter, giving participants the opportunity to take part in a forty day fast (excluding Sundays).
The concept of corporate mourning is often foreign to the western Protestant church. The idea that we should experience anything but corporate joy is somewhat uncertain; either for the fear or unfamiliarity of sharing grief together. Our culture typically saves mourning and repentance for private moments, squeezed in between to-do lists and day to day functions. We tend only to bring out our grief when it won’t impact our routine and our goals. But, that mindset misses the point of grief.
Lent doesn’t just gives us the permission to wade into the uncertainty of corporate mourning, fasting and repentance, it gives us a roadmap for how to navigate those things when our hearts aren’t completely fractured by sin and grief. This roadmap was laid out by Jesus as He walked the path Himself. You see, Lent has Easter as its end. And we know with certainty that Jesus walked out of the empty tomb. This certainty means that our mourning has a celebratory and timely end. Therefore, Lent is really about cultivating joy through mourning, repentance and fasting.
In his book “Reliving the Passion: Meditations on the Suffering, Death, and Resurrection of Jesus as Recorded in Mark” Walter Wangerin Jr. states, “The difference between shallow happiness and a deep, sustaining joy is sorrow. Happiness lives where sorrow is not. When sorrow arrives, happiness dies. It can’t stand pain. Joy, on the other hand, rises from sorrow and therefore can withstand all grief. Joy, by the grace of God, is the transfiguration of suffering into endurance, and of endurance into character, and of character into hope — and the hope that has become our joy does not (as happiness must for those who depend upon it) disappoint us. In the sorrows of the Christ — as we ourselves experience them — we prepare for Easter, for joy. There can be no resurrection from the dead except first there is death! But then, because we love him above all things, his rising is our joy.”
Repentance, fasting and mourning are all forms of worship. We should be familiar with turning to God through these emotions and actions. We should also be familiar experiencing these things shoulder to shoulder with our brothers and sisters in Christ. Billy and I tell Genevieve often that family was given to us for practice. We learn how tone, volume, words and actions impact other people when we are in close quarters. This helps us learn where we need to adjust. For example, sadness can sound like anger when the tone changes. Posture can communicate disgust when you’re feeling distraught. Joy, in abundance, can easily come across as sassiness. We need each other in order to find out how our efforts are being received. The input of others helps us understand how our actions and words are communicating.
This is why Lent is so important. We are able to practice our words of comfort, our posture of mourning and our gospel fluency in repentance. We have the opportunity to get comfortable and really settle into mourning, fasting and repentance. This also enables us to train our hearts, minds and bodies to turn to Jesus together. Quite frankly, we desperately need this practice.
I spent my 29th birthday out of town at a funeral. It was one of the hardest funerals I have ever been to. It was the funeral of a baby. Furthermore, I met the child’s parents for the first time the day of the wake. My friend was unsure she could drive and handle the sorrow on her own, so with approval from the family, I came along. Since we were coming from out of town, and my friend was very close with the family, we spent a lot of our time in the home of the grieving parents. I met aunts and uncles and grandparents as I was handing out tissues and hugs. I held children, filled coffee, ran errands and was just present to listen. Funerals have a distinct way of shining a light on our inadequacies. This was startlingly clear to me as I sat at the feet of a grieving mother in her beautiful, but empty nursery room. I wanted a shiny bow to put on this situation to make it all better, but death slaps that sentiment in the face. There is no shiny bow that erases the pain of fresh loss. Being reminded that grief is not a thing to be fixed, but a thing to be shared, I could only be present for her. In fact, that weekend I did not fix anyone’s grief, but I shared in it corporately and I did so with my eyes and heart desperate for Jesus. By His grace, I leaned on the past shared grief I had experienced and prayed that my presence would be a balm and not a hurt. We desperately need the practice that Lent offers because we live in a world ravaged by pain, suffering and despair. Only Jesus can heal these things and He has given us the distinct honor of reflecting Him by being present.
We will all face funerals, heartache and death. We learn how to comfort, how to sit in repentance, and how to fast by wading into the hard things and leaning on Jesus. We are family and this is where we practice. We sit in the pain of loss of our dear Savior, knowing that the price He paid was our debt. We fast and, when we long for the thing we are fasting from, we remind ourselves and each other that Jesus is our true comfort and sustenance. We remember that He gave His life for ours. Fasting, mourning and repentance are not about self shame and punishment. They are about facing the reality of sin and responding in worship to our Messiah, Jesus. He is the One who gives His presence freely. He is the One who died in our place. We mourn His death, confident in God’s presence and the joy to come.