Today is Ash Wednesday and the first day of Lent – a little-known fact here, even among Christians.
I’m not surprised. I grew up in an Anglican church, and I was never interested in church calendars or church festivals. Liturgy is boring and fetters the spontaneous move of God, I used to think. Liturgy is the reason people stop going to church because no one understands why we have to stand, sit, and kneel so many times in two hours, I used to argue. I disdained liturgy and all the trappings that went with it — men in long white house-dresses is so medieval age (or so gay, as my more cynical friends would say).
It was a wise teacher whom I got to know during a stint in the UK nine years ago who pointed out that every Christian denomination has a “liturgy” even if they don’t call it that. From the strictest Presbyterian to the most free-flowing Charismatic, every church has an order of service which is followed faithfully every week. The Anglicans have the Book of Common Prayer which is a collection of prayers to be used for different days or occasions. I used to be able to mind-numbingly rattle off the most often-used prayers while I thought of what I should have for lunch after service.
It was in UK that I realised that perhaps the problem didn’t lie with the prayer but with the person praying (and/or leading) it. If we recite it as we do a boring history text, then the words are devoid of meaning to us. But if we read it and mean what we say, then it comes alive.
Here’s an example. Every church takes an offering every Sunday. And after every offering, someone says a prayer which usually goes along the line of thanking God for His provision and that the offering be used for His kingdom. Having heard so many of these prayers over the years, and I may be biased, but I still find the Anglican offertory prayer the most beautiful. “Yours, Lord, is the greatness, the power, the glory, the splendour, and the majesty, for everything in heaven and on earth is Yours. All things come from You, and of Your own do we give You.” Pre-prepared words, yes, but how does one improve upon them?
That was my awakening to church liturgy in a nutshell and a digression from the main topic.
So, Ash Wednesday got its name from the practice of believers getting ashes put on their forehead as a reminder of their mortality and as a sign of mourning and repentance to God. The ash is from the burning of Palm Sunday crosses from the year before. Some churches still do it, others don’t. I didn’t get an ashy forehead at the church this evening.
Ash Wednesday marks the start of Lent, which is a 40-day period during which believers prepare themselves to commemorate the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. It’s also a time of spiritual stock-taking, perhaps we’ve squeezed God out of our busy lives without realising it.
Some people fast or give up something during Lent to remember the hardships Jesus went through on the Cross. Traditionally, people would give up meat or rich delicacies. But in moving with the times, some of my friends are giving up Facebook for Lent, which I think might be more difficult than not eating meat!
I’m giving up chocolate for Lent. Chocolate to me is what coffee is to caffeine addicts. I eat chocolate when I’m happy, I eat chocolate when I’m sad. I eat chocolate everyday, more regularly than my vitamins.
Some people ask me why Christians need to torture themselves by giving up something for Lent? Is it to make God love us more? Do we get extra brownie points in heaven for doing so? Perhaps it’s not about giving up something but more about doing something for Lent.
So each time I say “No” to chocolate, it’s a reminder of what I should do this Lent — to be more loving, more gracious and less ballistic over idiot drivers. It reminds me in that split second to think of someone else other than myself. But just to make sure I keep my hands off chocolate, I’m going to keep my stash under lock, stock and barrel until Easter.
Holy God, our lives are laid open before you:
rescue us from the chaos of sin
and through the death of your Son
bring us healing and make us whole
in Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen