Wednesday was Ash Wednesday, marking the beginning of the season of Lent in the western church calendar. I've been asked by a couple of people what this actually is. I didn't really know how to put it into words until hearing the sermon during the Ash Wednesday service.
Ash Wednesday is a day to reflect on your sins and imperfections. The Ash Wednesday liturgy is a service of penitence, and ashes are place upon our foreheads as a reminder that we are dust, and to dust we shall return. (So if you saw people wandering around with a big black smudge on their forehead on Wednesday, they most likely just came from just such a service.) By the end of the service we are shriven - completely forgiven of all our sins.
So what's Lent about then? you may ask. Since all many hear about Lent is "I gave up _______ for Lent", they assume it's a depressing time of deprivation and solemn penitence and suffering. But it's really 40 days to work deeply on your spirituality, to put your spiritual life first on your list of priorities. It's a time to slow down and look within, to get centered and clear away distractions, to "patch the holes where your soul is leaking out", to become a stronger spiritual container. So the "giving up for Lent" part is really about creating a discipline that can help you to do that. For some, it's giving up a certain food (traditionally it's meat, but many give up caffeine or chocolate). For some it's taking on a discipline like reading scripture or meditating. Basically, something that helps you become conscious of your actions.
The giving up of a food has never really worked for me, so this year I'm cutting back on television watching. While I was sick I got very used to having the TV on all day, and it's difficult to stop that habit now that I'm well again. So my hope is that I can reclaim some of that wasted time and use it toward more spiritual pursuits. And hopefully that will become a habit that stays with me long after Lent is over.