Smiles and Ashes

Is it OK to smile at an Ash Wednesday service? Must Lent be somber and penitence dark? Despite the words of Jesus, there are still those who see Lent as liturgical theater and a time to put on an unhappy face. “Let’s think about our sins and feel bad about them,” is not, however, what Lent is all about.

In Christian penitence, the oncologist’s office is a more appropriate analogy than the psychologist’s couch. The patient diagnosed with life-threatening cancer will experience many dark moments, but wallowing in the darkness is not the path to a cure. It can even be counter-productive. Finding time to smile in the midst of treatment is healthy, not deadly. In facing a life threatening disease, there is a time to feel the understandable pain of fear, uncertainty and loss, but there is also a time for reason and realism and laughter and boldness and continuing to enjoy the parts of life that are not broken.

When we realize the true nature of our sins and their consequences, sorrow and grief naturally occur. Our hope does not lie, however, in the depth of our remorse. It lies in the power of our great physician. The situation is deadly serious. There are parts of our lives that need extreme healing. Other parts need to be removed as if they were deadly cancers. Ultimately, a new creation must emerge and the old Adam die. These are things that only Christ can accomplish.

It’s OK for the penitent to smile and joke as they boldly entrust themselves to the master’s care. Sorrow and grief don’t cure our spiritual ills any more than they cure our physical ills. We can be even more confident of Christ’s ability to heal our souls than we are of an oncologist’s ability to heal our bodies.

With that confidence, we can even take Martin Luther’s advice. When faced with temptation, be cheerful, make merry and laugh at the devil.

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