‘What a piece of work is man! how noble in reason! how infinite in faculty! in form and moving how express and admirable! in action how like an angel! in apprehension how like a god! the beauty of the world! the paragon of animals! And yet, to me, what is this quintessence of dust?’
Words borrowed from Shakespeare’s Hamlet and surprisingly well suited to the season which is almost upon us – Lent.
What is the point of Lent? You could be forgiven for thinking that it’s some kind of masochistic Christian exercise designed to remind us that we are nothing but dust to be trodden underfoot and that we should be mindful of our station at all times and in all places, especially during this season of imposed abstinence.
Unfortunately, being made to feel like dust (or rubbish), which the Ash Wednesday ritual of ashing the forehead can do, if we’re honest about it, can also have the effect of inducing a kind of groveling self-hatred which is altogether counter-productive, in terms of what Lent is really for (which is to grow closer to the God who loves us for who and what we are), or, at best, turn it into some kind of self-improvement regime. On the whole self-improvement regimes rarely achieve their goals, or so I’ve found, leaving us feeling not only less improved but also that we are thoroughly incapable of sticking to anything we set out to do and hence a dismal failure into the bargain. The paragon of animals, we are not, still less the paragon of virtue.
Here, we start to come a bit closer to what I think is the point of Lent, which is not to make us feel like miserable failures or, at the other extreme, like paragons of virtue, but to make us know that we are loved by God who invites us into a loving relationship with him before we have done anything at all to make ourselves presentable, so to speak. In fact the less presentable we are, the more deserving (for which read needful) of the love of God we are.
Think briefly of the story of the Prodigal Son. Incidentally, it is not that he is more loved than his brother, but he is, I believe, given an extra slice of something, possibly because, unlike his older sibling, he has actually dared to live a life and to fail, ingloriously, but ultimately quite gloriously. He arrives filthy, smelling of the pub he last visited and still slightly drunk from the night before. He has not lived carefully but I would hazard a guess that he has not lived selfishly either. What he hasn’t been cheated of, or just lost, he may well have given away out of a mixture of compassion, naivete and innate self hatred. He hasn’t really thought anything through at all and now it is too late, or perhaps not quite too late. He is a kind of glorious failure. The point of Lent is to show us how to fail gloriously.
The point of Lent is not to waste time trying to clean ourselves up by mastering our cravings for sugar, or violence on TV or the instant reassurances afforded by twitter or snap-chat, dangerous media which can just as easily destroy as build up. The point of Lent is to make us more vulnerable to God’s love. The point of Lent is to give us permission (freedom is the other word) to be fully who we are before God. The last thing required of us, in this respect, is that we should spend the time making ourselves presentable. We will never manage it.
If we manage anything at all, it will be to recognize this fact, and that we would like to be a different kind of person to the one we know ourselves to be. The exercise then becomes a matter of getting to know this real person over a period of forty days or so, so that by the end of it, or better still right at the beginning, that real person can hear their name being called by the one who loves us as we are, by the Risen One. The ashes on the forehead remind us that we need this love.