Today we begin the season of Lent, the time the Church gives us to prepare to celebrate Easter. So, we might ask ourselves: why do we need to prepare for Easter? Surely, by now, we know what to expect, we know what is coming? We’re all pretty familiar with the Easter liturgies.
And it is thoughts such as these that betray us, that remind once again that we still are not living Easter, that we still need Lent, need it more than ever. That we think Easter is coming tells us that we have not yet arrived. We think it is in the future, rather than the very definition of the present.
Easter is the central celebration of the Church. It is the celebration that is the focus of every other celebration, the rhythm of the whole liturgical year, the heartbeat we hear every Sunday. It is the memory of the moment when we saw how much God loves us, when we saw the wondrous plan God had for humanity, indeed all of creation, and how close God is to us and how close we could be to God.
But, again, that word ‘memory’ can betray us. It can deceive us into thinking we are celebrating something that has come and gone. Something that is past. That our celebration is a pious reflection on an historical event. This is not what Easter is. This is not what Lent prepares us for.
No – the memory we celebrate – of Christ’s passion, death and resurrection – is the very memory of life itself. This is not a memory of something past, but one of a present, living reality. One could compare it to catching up with an old friend. Before we see them, we wonder how it will be. We remember what it was like last time. But once we are with them, it is as if the years fall away. The ease of conversation, the laughter, the shared experiences – everything falls back into place. Instead of remembering how it was, you remember how it is. How simple true life is. You remember what is like because you are living it.
This is what our memory of Easter should be. It should be a living memory. It should be the first thing that occurs to us when we wake up. It should be the frame through which we see the world. It should be the choreography of our every action and the music of every relationship. A memory that feeds us.
But it is not. We seem incapable of living truly, of loving honestly, of forgiving continually. We keep getting in the way of the Holy Spirit. And so the Church gives us Lent. She gives us Lent so that each year we can set aside some time to get back in gear. More than that, she gives us Lent so that we can get into the habit of getting back into gear throughout the rest of the year. Lent is the reminder that we are crunching our gears, clutching onto life rather than giving it away, captives to fear rather than living the freedom that comes with the knowledge of how much God loves us, and that real life comes from returning that love by loving our neighbours.
Ash Wednesday sets the scene for this. The season of Lent began as a period of liturgical preparation for those who were to be baptised at Easter, which used to be the only time when people could enter the Church. Easter then also became the time when sinners could re-enter the Church. Lent therefore became a time of penance for sinners seeking reconciliation with the worshipping community. Ashes are a traditional mark of the repentance and so played a role in this public penance. Over time, a devotional practice developed in which others would mark themselves with ashes to express their solidarity with the sinners, thereby expressing an understanding that none of us is perfect and that all are in need of the grace of repentance.
This is the experience of each one of us. God has created us in his image, then recreated us in baptism to express his love for the world. But we do not live this. Or, at least: not as well as the world needs us to. And so we need Lent. We need to spend time with God, to remember the source of true life. We need to serve our neighbour, to remember how to express this life. And we need to abstain from all that can distract us from true life, so that we can become better able to remember.
Because when we remember what true life is like, we live it. And when we live it, we proclaim it to others. And when we proclaim it through lives of joy and service, others will remember true life, too, and so be able to have it in abundance.