Of all the seasons on the church’s liturgical calendar, Lent may be the most counter-cultural. The 40-day season of fasting and penitence that began this week with Ash Wednesday is an antidote to a self-indulgent age.
The rise of “self-esteem” in our culture to a place of pre-eminence asserts that our fundamental goal is to “feel good about ourselves.” Lent calls us down another path – of honest self-examination, recognition of the reality of sin in our lives, and repentance.
It is a time to acknowledge that in many ways we are not doing so well and there are things about ourselves that we should not feel good about.
But the penitential nature of Lent is not about self-flagellation or a debilitating sense of worthlessness. Far from it.
Lent prods us to confront our sin, which is at its core a self-separation from God. Lent, like the Christian faith in general, calls us to “turn around” – the literal meaning of repentance – and move back toward God, who will receive us with open arms, inexhaustible forgiveness and abundant love.
Self-loathing is not the posture to which God calls us. Instead, self-knowledge – and the desire to enlist God in bringing light into the dark corners of our lives – is the aim of Lent.
True self-love is possible only when we know we are loved and forgiven. Lent points us in that direction, to a reunion with the God who because he made us, loves us and forgives us is also the source of our spiritual and emotional wholeness, of our lasting “self-esteem.”
In the opening to his Lenten devotional book, “Show Me the Way,” the late priest and author Henri Nouwen sets the stage for a conversation with God about the spiritual struggles we all face:
“I know that Lent is going to be a very hard time for me,” Nouwen writes. “The choice for your way has to be made every moment of my life … And I know how deeply I resist choosing you.
“Please Lord, be with me at every moment and in every place. Give me the strength and the courage to live this season faithfully, so that, when Easter comes, I will be able to taste with joy the new life which you have prepared for me. Amen.”