Existential Lent?

One of the things I notice this time of year is how progressive Christians approach Ash Wednesday and Lent.

Specifically, to state my observation right at the start, by and large progressive Christians shift Ash Wednesday away from its penitential focus toward an existential focus.

To be sure, there are existential aspects to both Ash Wednesday and Lent. We know the words that accompany the imposition of ashes: "Dust you are, and to dust you shall return."

Because of these words, reminders of our mortality, many progressive Christians seem to think that the point of Ash Wednesday is to contemplate our mortality and to grieve the death of loved ones. I've seen many Ash Wednesday services in progressive spaces basically turned into bereavement services. Lent becomes about lamenting, rather than about penance.

To be sure, death is centered on Ash Wednesday. But those words "dust you are, and to dust you shall return" don't come from Job, Ecclesiastes, or the lament Psalms. They come from Genesis 3, God's curse upon human sinfulness and rebellion. God says to Adam, because of his disobedience, "dust you are, and to dust you shall return."

So, yes, death and mortality are in play here, but as the punishment and consequence of sin. Any focus upon death on Ash Wednesday or Lent is framing death as just deserts rather than as a trigger for theodicy. What Ash Wednesday is reminding us of is Sin's Curse, how we have brought that curse upon ourselves, and that we are marked by death because of our sin. Again, the focus is penitential rather than existential.

And shifting the focus from penance to angst, from sin to bereavement, from repentance to lament, from personal guilt to theodicy, is such a stereotypical progressive move. Instead of looking in the mirror to take a hard moral look at ourselves, we focus upon our doubts and confusion about God's behavior in allowing loved ones to die. For progressive Christians during Lent, God is the problem, not us.

Now, I don't want to push too hard on this point. There is place for grief, lament, and groaning during Lent, how a world subjected to death is full of suffering and pain. But the season of Lent is to dwell upon how we've contributed to that pain, rather than spinning it into a theodicy problem. Again, the focus on this penitential season is accusing ourselves rather than God.

So, yes, Ash Wednesday and Lent are sad. But I think a lot of us are missing the point about why we're so sad. We're angsty sad, rather than penitentially sad. And again, to be clear, angsty sad is perfectly okay and appropriate, but it's not actually the focus of Ash Wednesday and Lent.

Center your sins and you'll get this season right.

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One thought on “Existential Lent?”

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