Growing up in a non-denominational church, we didn't follow the conventions of the Lent season. We had a traditional celebration on Easter Sunday, one that amounted to a bit of holy reverence, and a lot of shared paganism. The idea of the resurrection of Christ was in the air, but all I felt was the burning damnation of my inescapable sin.
I attended an Episcopalian service once, and it happened to be Ash Wednesday. The small church was beautifully lighted by the flicker of candles, the priest was adorned in a simple white vestment, and the presence of the room was so profoundly holy. The beauty of the room was matched only by the congregants. The authenticity of their love, the sincerity of their hearts, was something I hadn't experienced from almost anyone, let alone complete strangers. It was the love of God himself being passed between us.
We partook of Eucharist by tearing a piece of bread from a single loaf, and dipping it into the wine held within a shared goblet. Arm-to-arm we stood, the heat of the body warming each other with the holy sacraments. The priest said a blessing over each who ate the bread and drank the wine. It was personal, intimate, something I had never before experienced, yet always knew to be the truth of what God's love should look like. I felt the love of Christ and his sacrifice for my life pour over me like warm honey.
I didn't think this moment could get any more intimate, and then the liturgy was delivered with such sweet vulnerability that it struck me in my deepest parts. This wasn't a manicured litany of facts, when Jesus died, and how he arose, no, this was a message spoken of our naturally duplicitous nature to both want good, and yet to do evil. There was no pretense, no avoidance of our own personal sin, no hiding, and most importantly, no shame. I had never been exposed so recklessly, and felt so shameless.
The call was made to come to the priest and to be adorned with soot. I arose and went forward. While my intentions were to be an observer only, I couldn't get there fast enough. My religious mind argued that I should sit this one out since I didn't really have an expansive understanding of the tradition. But through the beauty of this message, I got it. I wanted to be marked for a new life in repentance and the mourning of my sin. I wanted to be marked with my mortality. I wanted to accept that time is short and to decide where my dedications lie. In order to sort through my loyalties, I had to begin with the inward journey of self-reflection, and only with the Lord's skilled guidance. We need His guidance because it is too easy, upon investigation, to run from what we find. Shame often detracts us to live with the mythical self, rather than to embrace the reality of who we are. This sacred moment ripped the seams of my false self and helped me to embrace the hypocrisy and darkness of my life in a way that was freeing, not damning.
I felt God's presence on my life, His love blossoming around me by candlelight. I felt my heart expanding, my trust growing, my shame disappearing. This service showed me what my life as a disciple should really look like when stripped of the habits of religion. It's simultaneously self-aware AND overflowing with the grace of God and the extreme gratitude for making it safe to come to him in our darkness. Our sin is not hidden from God, yet when we acknowledge it and let it breathe out in the open, we find our forgiveness waiting in the quiet and steady love of God.
I have found myself again longing to re-establish God's stillness inside of me. I have felt a pull to be still in His presence. I have let the shame of defeat overwhelm me to the point of self-destruction. I have been drowning myself in the baptismal instead of finding new life there. I have let the habits of religion find their way back into my heart, and the cloud of sin hover all around me. I will take these 40 days and search myself once again. He if faithful to show up in His perfect love, and to strip away the lies. When all we can see is our sin, chances are we aren’t looking at ourselves through the tender eyes of God and receiving his forgiveness.
I find it interesting that Lent means "long," because it is a season to allow God to lengthen us in His love; into something eternal and beautiful, not in spite of our humanity, but because of it.