Ashes to Joy

In early Lent I posted the following as my Facebook status, “I am brimming full of joy!” My liturgically minded friends quickly weighed in: “Well, stop it! It’s Lent,” wrote one. “Here, here! Ashes. Death. Sin. Think on these things,” wrote another.

It was all in good fun, and my friends made me laugh, but it also points to an odd association with Lent: that this season is anti-joy. That we should indeed sit around in sackcloth and ashes and ponder our sins. And, truth be told, sometimes this is vitally necessary to a thriving spiritual life. One needs to discover the sin that so easily entangles so that one can, with the Spirit’s help, shake it off and run the race. Blindness to one’s own sin leads to narcissism and arrogance, and to the repeated wounding of others and distancing ourselves from God. There is a reason why we focus on discipline and denial during Lent: it reminds us that this is not about us.

But the people who ordered these liturgical seasons did not want unmitigated sorrow at one’s own brokenness to be the focus of Lent. Wisely they made Lent 40 days, but didn’t count Sundays. On Sundays we are allowed to enjoy whatever it is we may have given up for the rest of the Lent–drink the wine, eat the chocolate, watch the movie, read the book. On Sundays we are to gather in worship and celebrate the resurrection, even with the purple banners and lack of  Alleluias. On Sundays we are given an intentional reprieve from the heaviness of Lent.

And this is because even in this season of dust and ashes, we are an Easter people. We are people of resurrection, we are people of new life. At our core, we are no longer first identified as sinners. Paul stresses this again and again in his letters: ” The old has gone, the new has come! ” (2 Corinthians 5:17). “For you died and your life is hidden with Christ in God.”(Colossians 3:3) “As for you, you were dead in your transgressions and sins…But because of his great love for us, God, who is rich in mercy, made us alive with Christ even when we were dead in transgressions–it is by grace you have been saved” (Ephesians 2: 1, 4).

My Lenten Facebook status came as the result of feeling this resurrection vibe; that there was new life in and around me where there had previously been death; that God, who is rich in mercy, had indeed made me alive in Christ, and I was brimming full of joy. It was a surprise, this gift; it was just as unexpected and just as joy-giving as a bright sunny February day in West Michigan.

This is the journey that our Lenten practices are designed to take. They cannot merely take us inward to ponderously reflect on our own sin, they cannot merely lead to self-fagellation and misery–they need to take us to the cross, yes, but also to the empty tomb. The Spirit is a mover, he is not content with you to sit in sorrow, he wants to take you to the joy of Easter. Even during Lent.

Christ is alive! His rule has begun! Alleluia. Amen. Brim full.

Mary Hulst is chaplain at Calvin College and assistant professor of preaching at Calvin Theological Seminary in Grand Rapids, Michigan.