I told a friend, “I need Lent this year.”
I have practiced Lent in some form or fashion since middle school, although not always with the greatest of intentions, and before it was commonplace in Cooperative Baptist Fellowship-adjacent circles.
One year, I practiced Lent by listening only to classical music, contemporary Christian music and NPR (something I could not do now). As an adult, I’ve dabbled with different practices, whether it’s praying the Daily Office, or giving up something like alcohol or chocolate.
Last year, Ash Wednesday felt particularly keen. I attended a funeral for my great aunt, the last of my grandfather’s siblings. I then went to church, where I both received and imposed ashes on people whose ages ranged from preschool to the elderly, and from my own parents to persons I didn’t know well.
“From dust you came, and to dust you return, repent and believe the gospel,” I said, tracing the sign of the cross on their foreheads or their hands. For the little ones, it was simply, “God loves you. Believe the gospel.”
This was the last time I had close contact with most of these persons. As the pandemic moved us to gather virtually, I was lucky to see faces on a screen.
“From dust you came, and to dust you return, repent and believe the gospel.” How do these words ring differently in the past year? Knowing my own dustiness, and the dustiness of my community all too deeply. Feeling the necessity of repentance. Wondering how to believe.
I need Lent this year. The rhythms of the liturgical year ground me, even as the pandemic distorts my sense of time.
I need Lent this year because as I look at the bold Christian white nationalism —which always has been present and yet has taken on a new vengeance — I wonder how my silence and complicity feeds into it.
“So often I want to shout to others, ‘Repent and believe the gospel’ without telling myself the same.”
I need Lent this year because even as I attempt, although halfheartedly, to reject such sin, the fear of losing power and prestige keeps me from speaking out when I should. So often I want to shout to others, “Repent and believe the gospel” without telling myself the same.
Repentance does not seem popular in our world today. When was the last time we saw a public figure openly repent of their previous actions and move forward, embracing a new way of life in a deeper and different, way? If anything, once caught, they may express disappointment in their actions and apologize to those whom they have hurt without admitting guilt: “I’m sorry if anyone was offended by my actions.” (Which places onus on the victim whom they hurt). But do their changed lives match their actions?
In fact, repentance — the act of admitting one’s wrongdoing and pivoting to another direction — may be perceived as weak.
This was certainly the case for Dave Ramsey’s team. When their less-than-ideal work conditions were exposed, he wrote a sarcastic letter criticizing the reporter rather than turning an inward look at himself. This was the case for my own senator, Josh Hawley, who refused to apologize for seeming to support and align himself with the terrorists who stormed the Capitol Jan. 6. He later condemned the violence, but curiously, not any of his words or behaviors, doubling down instead on claiming election fraud.
And often, this is the case for me.
“Jesus, perhaps stubbornly, believes people are capable of change.”
I need Lent this year because I am reminded that repentance comes with belief in the good news of Jesus Christ. To turn from sin means to turn toward life abundant. John the Baptist offered the baptism of repentance, knowing the Holy Spirit would come later. And Jesus, when the haters wondered why he chose to make a home among sinners, replied that he calls the sinners to repentance (Luke 5:32). Jesus, perhaps stubbornly, believes people are capable of change.
I find it interesting that I long for the repentance that comes with Lent. So often, notions of repentance have been associated with fundamentalism, like Westboro Baptist Church spewing hatred outside concerts, churches and schools. Yet repentance, that inward reflection that leads to outward transformation, can have powerful ramifications. Look at the Apostle Paul.
Lent will look different this year. I will not dip my finger in the ash and trace the sign of the cross on anyone’s forehead. The wilderness feeling, however, and the act of fasting from something — even if it’s to keep myself and others safe — will allow me to practice Lent in a way I never have before.
And perhaps, this year, a focus on repentance may lead me to embrace the forgiveness God offers and live into the Spirit’s transformation in a more meaningful way. Isn’t that what Lent is for?
Kate Hanch serves as associate pastor for youth and families at First St. Charles United Methodist Church in Missouri. She earned a master of divinity degree from Central Baptist Theological Seminary and a Ph.D. in theology and ethics from Garrett-Evangelical Theological Seminary. She is ordained in the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship and lives in O’Fallon, Mo., with her husband, Steve.