Ashes to Joy

and

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.