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Spiritual Growth

Sin, Sackcloth, and the Spirit: Ash Wednesday Reflection

By Glory E. Dharmaraj

Isaiah 58:1-12, Matthew 6:1-6, 16-21
I spent my childhood on a tea estate in Sri Lanka. At that time, there were not many good schools on the tea estate. Therefore, my parents sent me to India where I stayed in my aunt’s house with my cousins in order to attend school there. During vacations, when I went to my parents’ house, I had to go through what was known as “quarantine,” a time apart without any contact with the community, but to visit the medical staff on the tea estate, to get shots in order to ensure that I was not carrying any infections. A terrible time for me as a child to lose out play time outside my home.
Lenten observance, in the earlier days, was called “quarantine,” a health practice for travelers into Easter. Lent is a voluntary quarantine to engage in spiritual practices for forty days. The word Lent comes from the Old English word “lengten” which means spring. It signifies the lengthened hours in that season.
The Lenten journey, which starts on Ash Wednesday signals a lengthened time set apart for spiritual health practices in the days to come.
  • A long practice time to engage oneself in tending the spirit.
  • Intentional lengthening of time to spend for Christ.
  • Allowing ourselves to be cleansed by the Holy Spirit.
  • Shedding all that hinders our journey into joyful Easter.
  • Lengthening the time to engage in addressing the needs of our neighbor here and far.
  • Lengthening the time we care for the earth.
  • In short, lengthening the time to be in love with God and discerning what God wants us to do.
Living the Lent
God defines an acceptable quarantine. God defines an acceptable fasting in the scripture passages assigned for today.
An acceptable fasting is not just observing fast for the sake of fasting.
It is not putting on sackcloth, an outward sign of repentance, without the accompanying actions worthy of our repentance.
An acceptable spiritual practice is to stand in solidarity with the poor and the oppressed (Isaiah 58:6), and being in community with the least of these who are victims of exploitative systems. These victims are what Raymond Fung, a theologian, would call people who are sinned-against. Fung says that a person is not only a sinner; a person is also the “sinned against.”
Seeing Christ Anew
Lent is a time to see how the poor and the suffering persons see the Christ anew in his agony. Jon Sobrino, a Salvadoran Jesuit theologian, says that God is very real to the poor. They laugh with this God, and weep with God. This God’s “anguished countenance” is something they can caress and whose pierced feet they can kiss. This “Christian God is something the poor have discovered viscerally.”
Lent then is a time to see God from a different perspective, through the eyes of the victims, those at the margins, and those who are acquainted with grief and tragedy.
Lent is a time to repent of our sins, those of commission and omission, and intentionally overcome the temptations to fall into these sins again. It is a time for personal soul work.
Lent is a chance to equip ourselves to free all those who are “sinned against” by exploitative practices and systems. It is a time for collective justice work.
Lent is a lengthened time offered to us so that we may practice well the crossing over between personal soul work and collective justice work. The Holy Spirit helps us bridge the two seemingly divergent expressions of spirituality, namely personal piety and engagement in transforming mission. 
Lent is a time to see Christ anew and follow his footsteps…and if possible, to caress the disfigured face of Christ, as we seek to connect with his pain, thereby with the pain of the world, and then walk with him, as healed and whole persons and communities into Easter joy.
It is time to go into quarantine with Jesus in the in-between time, the lengthened time between Ash Wednesday and Easter Sunday.
Visit the Faith Explorations community on umwonline.org for more on the Lenten season.
*Glory E. Dharmaraj Ph.D is director of spiritual formation and mission theology for the Women’s Division.
Last Updated: 04/06/2010

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