Have we gotten the season of Lent wrong after generations of drift and dilution in our faith? Too easily, I believe – and mistakenly – we allow the prophet Joel to set the tone for Lent in the traditional Ash Wednesday reading, in which he warns of an approaching “day of darkness and gloom” and calls us to return to God “with fasting, with weeping, and with mourning” (Joel 2:1-2). We do this, I suppose, to prevent being thrown out of God’s kingdom, like an improperly dressed wedding guest, “into the outer darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth” (Matt. 22:13).
Welcome to the traditional season for preparing and receiving converts into the faith. Can you imagine a greater negative motivation? It may be a good way to literally scare the hell out of people, but it’s probably not the most effective way to lay groundwork for a celebration of new life.
That approach certainly has a long history in the church, with roots going back primarily to St. Augustine in the fourth century A.D., but it’s not the only one. There’s another approach that’s much older, 1200 years older, as old as the first written Hebrew scriptures, and one that runs through all the scriptures Jesus knew and even through the teachings of Jesus himself.
The approach to Lent that’s relatively more recent and more familiar starts with how essentially broken we are – how we are born with original sin – and how the payment of a great price is required to atone for our brokenness and restore us to a right relationship with God. We need someone to pay a great price to get rid of our old, broken self and make room for an entirely new self.
The more ancient approach starts with how essentially good we are, how inherently pleasing to God, how we are born not with original sin but with original blessing. According to this approach, we need a midwife to help our original, embryonic self – the self that’s hidden beneath all the encrustation of living – be set free in the life for which we are created. We don’t need to trade in the old self for a new one; we need to liberate the true self that’s been here all along, only hidden or held captive within a false self.
You may remember how, in the Disney movie The Lion King, the lion cub Simba flees his homeland when his father, Mufasa, king of the Pride Lands, is murdered and the kingdom seized by Mufasa’s younger brother Scar. Although Simba is the rightful heir to the kingdom, he knows nothing about who he really is or about the life he is meant to live. He knows only that his father died a long time ago.
One night Rafiki, a wise mandrill, tells Simba his father still lives. Simba doesn’t believe it, so Rafiki offers to show Simba’s father to him, and he has Simba gaze into a pool of water. “Look down there,” he says to the young lion. Simba is disappointed. “That’s not my father,” he says. “That’s just my reflection.”
“Look harder,” Rafiki replies. “You see, he lives in you.” Slowly the ripples in the water transform Simba’s face into the image of his father. “Father?” the young lion says. Mufasa replies, “Simba, you have forgotten me.” “No. How could I?” Simba protests. And Mufasa says to him, “You have forgotten who you are, and so you have forgotten me. Look inside yourself, Simba. You are more than what you have become. Remember who you are.”
The imposition of ashes on Ash Wednesday, with the words, “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return,” is a reminder that we are not the persons whose image the world reflects back to us. That image is dust and will return to dust. The ashes invite us to look deeper, to look inside ourselves and remember who we are. If we suffer from anything at all, it’s not original sin, it’s original amnesia. We have forgotten who we are and so have forgotten who God is.
When we lose sight of our true selves and forget who we really are, we lose our way, and we can wander far from home, far from the kingdom where we are meant to live. Lent is a season when we remember who we are and prepare ourselves anew to live the life for which we are created.