Reflections on Lent

Reflections on Lent

Ash Wednesday marks the beginning of Lent, when the sign of the cross is made with ashes on our foreheads and is accompanied by the words “Remember man that thou art dust, and unto dust thou shall return.” The readings in the service that follows include this passage from Psalm 51:

Be merciful, O Lord, for we have sinned. Have mercy on me, O God, in your goodness . . . wipe out my offense. Thoroughly wash me from my guilt and of my sin cleanse me. . . For I acknowledge my offense, and my sin is before me always . . .A clean heart create for me, O God, and a steadfast spirit renew within me. Cast me not out from your presence, and your Holy Spirit take not from me . . . Give me back the joy of your salvation, and a willing spirit sustain in me.

As we hear this passage read, we are jolted from the perspective of the present age—that we are all wonderful creatures who are filled with such wisdom that we create our own truth and reality, right and wrong are whatever we wish them to be, and we are deserving of both self-adulation and unwavering esteem from others.

In an instant, if we were really listening, the three words that accompanied the ashes—”Thou art dust”—crushed our grandiose notions. We could almost feel the impermanence of our lives and in that moment, understand that just as we did not create ourselves, so neither can we create our personal truth, reality, or morality. We may also have grasped the irony that the people who fashioned those falsehoods are long gone, blown away on the dusts of time.

The Psalm, too, is sharply at odds with the perspective of the present age. References to “my sin,” “my offense,” and “my guilt,” as well as the request for mercy and  “a clean heart,” have been purged from the modern lexicon. And yet however used to their absence we may have been, and how comfortable we have felt without them, those references have a way of bringing us to tears and prompting us to say silently, “I’m deeply sorry for all my sins, my faults, my broken promises to You, God. Please forgive me.” In that moment, humility displaces egotism, our minds and hearts open to Grace, and we hope they remain open and receptive.

If we are honest with ourselves, of course, we realize that our human imperfection may cause our humility and desire for holiness to fade unless we sustain our effort to retain them.

So, what will that effort consist of in addition to praying and reading Scripture? I believe the answer is to develop the habit of asking meaningful questions about ourselves and our lives. The most fundamental ones are: What is the purpose of my existence? What can I do to  fulfill that purpose? Those questions will lead to others concerning our past and future lives.

Our Past Lives

What opportunities have I seized to improve myself? What ones have I missed or put aside and then forgot?

What bad habits have I slipped into and never bothered to correct, including those I have practiced for so long that they seem inborn?

Have I become alienated from family members or friends? If so, have I tried to reconcile with them or made excuses to avoid doing so?

What neighbors or fellow workers have I shunned because I heard rumors about them but never bothered to learn if they were true?

What people have needed my recognition, attention, and help? Which have I responded to? Which have I ignored?

Have I thanked the people whose advice or guidance has had a positive impact on my life, or simply taken their goodness for granted?

In what ways has my self-absorption distracted me from identifying my faults and overcoming them?

Have I been alert to the the promptings of the Holy Spirit, or pretended not to hear?

Our Present and Future Lives

How can I become better at seeing life through other people’s eyes and understanding their perspective, even when it differs significantly from my own?

How can I express sympathy and even empathy to others, including those who are difficult to communicate with?

How can I give the benefit of the doubt to those I am tempted to judge harshly?

What can I do, starting today, to maintain (or regain) harmony in my family?

What can I do to improve my neighborhood, country, and world?

How can I live the Golden Rule and be kind to the unkind, caring to the uncaring, forgiving to the unforgiving, and appreciative to the unappreciative?

How can I not only speak to God but also listen carefully for His responses, which may come in different forms and from unexpected sources and events?

Asking and answering these questions throughout Lent will create habits of thought and action that both guide us throughout the year and help us resist the errors that have displaced the biblical perspective.

Copyright © 2024 by Vincent Ryan Ruggiero. All rights reserved.

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Vincent Ryan Ruggiero