This post might be too personal or specific given your particular church tradition. I'm writing it mainly to try to sort out some of my feelings about Lent in my particular church setting.
I have a mixed religious history. I was raised in (and remain a part of) the Churches of Christ. This tradition is a low-church, non-liturgical, Protestant tradition. We do not, historically speaking, follow the liturgical calender. Thus, we don't celebrate Lent, Easter or Advent. We do celebrate these holidays--mainly Easter and Christmas--the way most people do in the world. We just don't recognize them in worship. In fact, sermons on Easter or Christmas might actually be an attack on religious observances of these "holy" days. The refrain you often hear in the Churches of Christ is "We don't celebrate Easter and Christmas on a particular day. We celebrate these events everyday."
On the other hand, I attended Catholic private schools from 6th grade through High School. Consequently, I attended a lot of Mass when the student body celebrated holy days. At the time I didn't enjoy this. I was, after all, a religious outsider observing (and judging) the proceedings. But liturgy affects you. Even if you are resisting it. And Lent was a particularly profound experience. Every Friday of Lent we would go to Mass and observe the Stations of the Cross, the Way of Sorrow:
1. Jesus is condemned to deathThese weekly observances resonated with the melancholic, pensive part of my soul. I've always had an inner sadness about life despite my upbeat temperament. And every week of Lent you left the church on this depressive note: Jesus is dead and lying in the tomb. Needless to say, by the time Easter arrived you are ready for some good news.
2. Jesus is given his cross
3. Jesus falls the first time
4. Jesus meets His Mother
5. Simon of Cyrene carries the cross
6. Veronica wipes the face of Jesus
7. Jesus falls the second time
8. Jesus meets the daughters of Jerusalem
9. Jesus falls the third time
10. Jesus is stripped of His garments
11. Crucifixion: Jesus is nailed to the cross
12. Jesus dies on the cross
13. Jesus' body is removed from the cross (Deposition or Lamentation)
14. Jesus is laid in the tomb and covered in incense.
I didn't know how the Stations had affected me until I left for college. Suddenly that spring Easter Sunday was upon me and I felt, deep in my bones, this feeling like "Hey! It can't be Easter! I'm not ready!" It was the first time I "got" the power of liturgy. The way it shaped you, even as you resisted it.
So I lived this mixed life. Low-church and high-church. Pushing against Lent and embracing Lent.
Which brings me to today.
My church, the Highland Church of Christ, is a far cry from my upbringing in a more "traditional" Church of Christ. Highland, in light our our church tradition, is considered "liberal." One mark of that "liberality" is Highland's ecumenism, its thoughtful engagement and embrace of other Christian traditions. Highland's DNA is Church of Christ, but its ecumenical spirit has lead us to embrace a variety of liturgical practices. For example, we recite the Lord's Prayer every Sunday and we overtly embrace the celebration of the Advent and Lenten seasons. But by "celebration" I really mean a general recognition that we are moving through a holy season along with other churches, most outside our tradition. In short, this is less an observance than a recognition that Lent or Advent is going on "out there" in the liturgical world. For example, while we alert the church that "Today is the first Sunday of Advent" and Christmas trees are now in the assembly I wouldn't say Highland "observes" Advent. We recognize Advent more than observe it.
This brings me to Lent, Ash Wednesday in particular.
As a part of this liturgical recognition Highland uses our normal Wednesday evening bible study (one of the Church of Christ's own "liturgical" practices) to observe/recognize Ash Wednesday. During this service members can receive ashes on their foreheads as is done in Catholic Ash Wednesday services. So after church you have this odd sight of Church of Christ members leaving services with ashes on their heads. My mixed religious history has come back with a vengeance.
Anyway, Andrea, my graduate assistant, asked me the other day what I thought about all this. Did I like how Highland observes Ash Wednesday and uses ashes? My response was that I have mixed feelings about it all. And here, as best I can tell, is why I feel ambivalence about Lent.
I think my mixed religious history is both helping me and hurting me in all this. On the helping side, as I've noted, my experiences with Lent in the Catholic church profoundly affected me. Again, I miss the Stations of the Cross. So anything that helps me prepare for Easter is welcomed by me.
But on the other hand my experiences with the Catholic church causes me to back away from this nod within my church toward the liturgical tradition.
First, it seems to me that we are only "celebrating" Lent because of a lucky convergence. Ash Wednesday occurs, well, on a Wednesday, the day the Church of Christ meets for a mid-week bible study. So our Ash Wednesday is capitalizing upon this happy convergence between our tradition and the liturgical calender. This, it might seem, is a good thing. But I just can't shake the feeling that it's all too contingent and coincidental. That is, if Ash Wednesday were, let's say, really an Ash Thursday my church wouldn't gather to observe the start of Lent. Just like we don't gather to celebrate Good Friday. So it feels to me like we are "noticing" the start of Lent rather than observing it.
Second, the imposition of ashes is optional. You aren't expected to do it. Which makes sense. This isn't a ritual from within our own tradition. It's a ritual that is coming in from the "outside" as it were. So not everyone feels comfortable with it. So some opt in and others opt out.
And it's this voluntarism--opting in or opting out--that makes me ambivalent. The observance of Ash Wednesday at my church is an optional deal. And this, as I experience it, exacerbates one of the problems of contemporary Christianity: Its individualized nature. Ash Wednesday at my church isn't communal. It's an add-on feature. Which strikes the wrong note for me. What ends up happening in my church is that some individuals or small groups celebrate Lent and others don't. For example, some people or groups give up something for Lent like the Catholics do. Others don't. And it's this lack of being on the same page, a very different vibe than the one I experienced in the Catholic church, which leaves me cold. Of course, I could celebrate Lent. But I hate the fact that this is something that I, as an individual, choose to do (i.e., opting in). It's just the completely wrong vibe. I hate that autonomous choices sit at the center of the practice. I'm not celebrating Lent with my church.
Please note, this isn't a judgment in any way. Nor is it a recommendation for our church to jettison these practices. Again, I embrace them. But I also feel weird about them.
As I said, I'm ambivalent about Lent.