Today, like many Christians, I will attend a church service at which somebody will smudge some ashes on my forehead while saying: "Remember that you are dust, and to dust you will return." This memento mori is the traditional beginning of Lent.
Not everybody does Lent, of course. For those who do, though, there's a sense that this is a pretty serious time, marked by lots of soul-searching and giving up of something that we enjoy. The payoff, I suppose, is that when Easter comes, you can stop doing all that. Until next year.
I want to say something very personal here. I like Lent. I don't find it oppressive at all. Maybe that's because I understand that the word "metanoiete," translated in most versions of the New Testament as "repent," actually means "renew your mind." It's not about giving up things. It's about expanding yourself and embracing what you might have rejected and condemned.
I first had the ashes imposed in my early 30s. I wasn't brought up religious, so religious ritual had a kind of novel appeal for me that it still retains. I'm not sure what I expected to happen afterward, though. To my great surprise, what I experienced was freedom. Freedom from fear, freedom from dogma, freedom from relentless self-criticism. Lent, I discovered, is a time to let your spirituality free - to let the permeable membranes that separate you from the rest of reality breathe and stretch.
Ever since then, I have experienced Lent every year as a joyful new beginning. I have experienced repentance as something that is not limited to Lent, but that, thankfully, goes on constantly. Oh, it will be very somber tonight, and that will fill a desperately needed hole in a world in which religion is increasingly limited to the upbeat and affirming. Neither religion nor life works that way, and this yearly reminder of that fact makes us whole. How glad I am to have discovered that.