At an Ash Wednesday service a few years ago, the priest giving the sermon asked the congregation whether they would be still willing to be signed with a cross on their foreheads if he used indelible red ink rather than the temporary black ash produced from the burning of the previous year’s palm crosses.
I will admit here, that until that point in the sermon I was guilty of daydreaming. I had been considering whether I should give up beer or just chocolate and crisps following this service that signals the start of Lent. I had overindulged at Christmas and my New Year resolution to eat healthily and lose weight had failed again by the second week of January. Wasn’t Lent just a second chance for Christians to give something up?
An indelible red ink cross on my forehead; crikey, he had certainly just grabbed my attention! Such a sign would mean that I was instantly recognisable to anyone and everyone as a Christian; a follower of Jesus. From that moment forward, every word I uttered or action I took would be weighed, measured and considered against that benchmark.
Was I happy to shoulder that responsibility? Did I know what it would entail and what would it cost me in the way I lived out my life? What changes would I have to make? Did I really understand my faith and were both it and my relationship with God strong enough to face such a challenge?
The Christian church considers Lent to be a period of self-examination, penitence, self-denial, study and preparation for Easter. The undisputable climax of Easter for Christians is the celebration of Jesus’ resurrection. However, historically, it was also the principal occasion for baptism and reconciliation with those who had been excluded from the church for serious faults. In both cases, individuals would be going through preparation involving study, repentance and penance, which might include fasting as they were tested for their readiness to be part of the Christian communion. All Christians were invited to join them in these undertakings over the forty days of Lent which serve as an appropriate reminder of the 40 days Jesus spent in the wilderness being tested by Satan.
As such Lent should not be considered by Christians as an opportunity for weight reduction, physical health improvement or a cost saving initiative. The emphasis of fasting is preparation for the soul, not weight loss; a position common shared with many of the other major religions and also adopted by our great leaders such as Moses, King David and Jesus himself.
So why not follow in the footsteps of our Christian forefathers and many across the Christian church during Lent and make it a period of study, reflection and penitence as you prepare to meet the risen Christ at Easter. Perhaps you can reflect, like me, on whether you are ready yet to wear an indelible red ink cross…