For some it’s little more than a curiosity following Pancake day. For others it’s a time of deep searching and resolution.
Yesterday, Ash Wednesday marked the first day of Lent, a period commemorating the time spent by Jesus in reflection wandering through the wilderness (Matthew 4:1-11). Traditionally, Lent is remembered with fasting. After using up food supplies on the Tuesday (often done with pancakes, hence “Pancake Day”), traditionally an ambitious 40-day fast was undertaken from today. This would last from Ash Wednesday until the day before Easter Sunday (“Holy Saturday”), with only the Sundays as breaks. In more recent times, more familiar is the idea of ‘giving up something for Lent’, such as chocolate or alcohol, a practice not limited to professing Christians. Yet the idea still remains the same: the season of Lent is often thought of as a time of self-deprivation, solemnity, and to some extent, even sadness.
One might be puzzled as to why Christians would want to willingly subject themselves to such a depressing-sounding period of time. After all, it isn’t specifically mandated by the Bible. In fact, there are verses that seem to fairly unequivocally say to “Rejoice in the Lord always” (Philippians 4:4a). Why, then, does there seem to be all this self-induced sorrow?
The Greek Orthodox theologian Alexander Schemann used the term “bright sadness” in his writings on Lent. In a dark world of pain, suffering and sadness, the brightness of Easter, in Jesus’ new life and defeat of death, spurs us on to not give up hope. The Christian worldview, despite common belief, is not about artificial suppression of negativity and sadness. The joy of Christ is not some vacuous, happy-clappy, pie-in-the-sky optimism that ignores the real issues of life. To the contrary, the joy that one receives from hoping for new life and hope for the future in Christ is experienced in the very midst of sorrow. It is not a denial that genuinely tragic and painful things happen to people, but instead a wonderfully bright hope that makes such tragedies bearable.
This season therefore marks a time of “bright sadness”. Romans 12:15 calls us to solidarity with others, to, “Rejoice with those who rejoice” and “weep with those who weep.” If we were not saddened when we saw a fellow human being in grief or pain, then the extent of our compassion would be in question. We are called to have solidarity with Christ, who wept over the death of His friend, Lazarus (John 11:35), and was deeply grieved by the way in which religion was being used to oppress and promote injustice (Matthew 23:1-36). It is thus right to feel saddened by the situation of violence in Iraq, the tragedy of undiscovered, yet curable, cases of Leprosy in Brazil and India, and the oppression of the regime in North Korea, to give a few examples.
Ash Wednesday nudges us to remember the way in which we, personally, by our attitude to strangers, friends or family, have failed to act in the fair, compassionate and loving way, without which injustice will never end in the world. It nudges us to change our lives to exemplify the justice and compassion we wish to see spread throughout the world. Yet it also calls us to look forward to a real hope of new life, transformation of lives and an end to death and suffering. This joy far surpasses even the worst sorrow.
May it be a time in all our lives in which we change things for the better. This may be by doing our part to end an international crisis, or simply by making the worlds of those around us a more hopeful place, whether it be for a person on the street, or even for a member of our own family. We all have the potential, in this way, to change to the world.