Today is Ash Wednesday, the beginning of the 46 days of Lent. In The United Methodist Book of Worship there is a solemn "Invitation to the Observance of the Lenten Discipline." When I was a pastor of a local church, I always read this invitation at each Ash Wednesday service. The conclusion of the invitation is
I invite you...,in the name of the Church, to observe a holy Lent:
by self-examination and repentance;
by prayer, fasting, and self-denial;
and by reading and meditating on God's Holy Word.
Lent always began for me whenever I heard those words read during the liturgy for Ash Wednesday. I believe that these words carried weight with the members of our church because we had already made plans for ways to keep Lent. These words of the invitation announced that Lent had arrived, and now it was time to practice its rituals.
I realize that some Christians are uncomfortable with rituals such as those we observe during Lent. They worry about ritualism--keeping the externals of religious practices, but without experiencing the reality of God's activity of grace in our lives.
It is true that there is ambiguity in religious rituals. In his novel, The Moviegoer, Walker Percy tells the story of a New Orleans stock broker named Binx Bolling. Binx is on a search for something. He doesn't know what he is searching for, but it may be God.
The novel ends with Binx parked in a car next to a Catholic church. He sees people going in and out of the church. At first, he assumes that there is a wedding or a funeral. Then he notices that their faces are marked with a smudge. Suddenly he realizes that it's Ash Wednesday.
Binx sees a man come out of the church. Binx thinks to himself, "It is impossible to say why he is here. Is it part and parcel of the complex business of coming up in the world? Or is it because he believes that God himself is present here at the corner of Elysian Fields and Bons Enfants? Or is he here for both reasons: through some dim dazzling trick of grace, coming for the one and receiving the other as God's own importunate bonus? It is impossible to say."
Except for an epilogue, that is the way the novel ends. It ends in ambiguity. We do not know whether Binx has found what he is seeking. Yet a sign is given to him--people going in and out of a church with the mark of the cross on their foreheads. Maybe it is here where Binx's search will come to its end.
But the sign itself is ambiguous. The sign is a religious ritual. Is it just an empty gesture, or is it a means of grace? It is impossible to say. We cannot tell whether or not a ritual is a matter for show or a real means of grace for someone by observing it from the outside. We cannot know what rituals mean to other people. But rituals, like those we observe in Lent, can be for us a means of grace if we approach them with faith, praying for the Holy Spirit to enable us to use them as a means by which God becomes present to us and we become present to God.
I pray for you a holy Lent.