Today is Ash Wednesday, the first day of Lent. Lent is often confusing for those outside the church, and for lots of us (especially us Baptists) on the inside. In popular culture, it amounts to something like a Christian New Year's resolution -- giving up chocolate until the Easter Bunny comes. This...isn't really the point.
Lent is often a time of reflection, and sometimes that is a process of removing the obstacles that keep us from seeing ourselves both as we truly are, warts and all, and at the same time how God sees us -- warts and all but also our perfected, holy selves. Lent is a process of re-calibration: who are we? And where are we going?
Instead of muddying things up too much more, I'll just let Frederick Buechner explain it for me.
In many cultures there is an ancient custom of giving a tenth of each year's income to some holy use. For Christians, to observe the forty days of Lent is to do the same thing with roughly a tenth of each year's days. After being baptized by John in the river Jordan, Jesus went off alone into the wilderness where he spent forty days asking himself the question what it meant to be Jesus. During Lent, Christians are supposed to ask one way or another what it means to be themselves.
If you had to bet everything you have on whether there is a God or whether there isn't, which side would get your money and why?
When you look at your face in the mirror, what do you see in it that you most like and what do you see in it that you most deplore?
If you had only one last message to leave to the handful of people who are most important to you, what would it be in twenty-five words or less?
Of all the things you have done in your life, which is the one you would most like to undo? Which is the one that makes you happiest to remember?
Is there any person in the world, or any cause, that, if circumstances called for it, you would be willing to die for?
If this were the last day of your life, what would you do with it?
To hear yourself try to answer questions like these is to begin to hear something not only of who you are but of both what you are becoming and what you are failing to become. It can be a pretty depressing business all in all, but if sackcloth and ashes are at the start of it, something like Easter may be at the end.
-- From Whistling in the Dark, later published in Beyond Words.