There is a Sunday every spring different from all others. Everyone dresses a little nicer than usual. Women wear floral dresses and men squeeze into the discomfort of a suit accented nicely by a pastel tie. People flock to church buildings early to beat the larger-than-normal crowds, and the energy in church buildings is at an all-time high.
The worship services are decidedly upbeat, and everyone is in a good mood. Often someone stands up front and says, “He is risen.” The congregation replies in unison, “He is risen indeed!” As soon as the worship service ends, the church buildings empty quickly as faithful worshippers go to devour a celebration feast.
I am speaking, of course, of Easter Sunday.
While this Sunday was the height of excitement for so many, it honestly meant very little to me for most of my life. I know that may sound like a terrible thing to say, but it is true. Every year the story was the same: some women gathered spices for Jesus’ body, went to a garden, saw the stone was rolled away from the tomb and an angel said Jesus had risen.
As exciting as the pastor tried to make it, I knew the end of the story, and the punchline had less power year after year. Beyond that there was the Monday after Easter. What was celebrated just 24 hours earlier seemed to matter little. Everyone had gone back to work, and life was, well, completely normal. The resurrection all seemed quite shallow.
You may know exactly what I am talking about. The hype, the excitement, the candy, the eggs and even the resurrection can seem to fall flat. Like any other holiday, it is here and gone before we know it. In this we have a choice: we can accept this is just how it is or we can move toward Easter differently.
Which brings us to Lent.
The word Lent comes from the Latin root meaning “to lengthen.” It reminds us that during the season of spring, the sun takes a little longer each evening to settle beyond the horizon. With this, the weather grows warmer, and life emerges once more. Lent is our connecting point to the season of life.
But this is a messy season. As the snows of winter lie on the ground, things get covered, trampled and windblown. Winter brings with it chilling winds that push things over, mess things up and even break things. As the snow melts we are left to discover the trash, the litter, the mud and the branches beneath the snow.
It’s much like our lives. Over time, our hearts and souls, when left unattended, get messy. Lent invites us to deal with the mess. This is not about quickly cleaning things up and pretending they were never there, nor is it about ignoring the mess. Lent invites to roll up our sleeves and sort through the debris of our lives.
We are confronted with our mess, and so on our foreheads we rub a little dirt reminding ourselves that just as Eden has gone to ashes, so, one day, we will too.
The first time I observed Lent over 10 years ago, I attended an Ash Wednesday service. Ashes were applied to my head and words were spoken over me, “Remember you are dust and to dust you shall return.” I learned in a new way that I am a mere mortal, and at same time created in the image of God. In that moment, something new in my soul began to grow. At the same time, it was, for me, a difficult time of coming to grips with my brokenness, staring at my sin and searching my heart.
This is what Lent does. It allows us to see the parts of ourselves we’d rather leave covered up. It asks us to drag our full self into the light of day no matter how dark it may be. As we near the end of Lent, we encounter Good Friday. For centuries, the people of God mark this day by participating in the Stations of the Cross remembering the trial and crucifixion of Jesus.
One station remembers the words Jesus cried while being crucified, “My God, My God, why have you forsaken me?” That one phrase sums up the darkness of Lent. At the point of Jesus’ death, He experienced the abandonment of God. He was naked, beaten, bleeding, dying, nailed to an instrument of torture and death, crying for a father only to realize His dad was nowhere.
Lent and Good Friday invite us to brush up against the death of Jesus as we sort through the death in our hearts. Good Friday is the moment when Jesus’ death and our sin crash into one another. And in that moment we ache for Easter.
The difference between Easter feeling shallow and Easter meaning something is simple and painful: death. The reason the resurrection felt so shallow to me for so long was because there was never any death. And you cannot have a resurrection without a death. This is why Lent is so important. It brings us face to face with our mortality and the death of Jesus.
A few years ago, I, along with several pastors from Denver, joined together for a sunrise service. There was the common story once again: some women gathered spices for Jesus’ body, went to a garden, saw the stone was rolled away from the tomb and an angel said Jesus had risen.
But this time when we read the words, “Why do you look for the living among the dead? He is not here, he is risen!” Almost on cue, the first rays of sunlight broke over the skyline of Denver, and tears of joy welled up in my eyes.
The tomb was empty. And it meant something.
Easter reminds us that in the in the Kingdom of God, death doesn’t have the last word; life does. Ash Wednesday, Lent and Good Friday teach us the resurrection is something we desperately need—for our broken selves and our broken world.
And so, as we enter into this Lenten Season, may we remember we are dust and to dust we shall return. May we examine our frail, flawed soul and, with Jesus, enter the darkness of our sin and death and journey with Him to the Cross. May we be crucified with Christ, and buried in the likeness of His death, so that when we hear the words “He is risen!” perhaps for the first time, we might truly celebrate the resurrection—because we have chosen to die so that we may have life.
Michael Hidalgo is the lead pastor of Denver Community Church, and is the author of Changing Faith: Questions, Doubts and Choices About an Unchanging God