The Futility of Lent

Photo by joaogbjunior /

Originally published Mar 1, 2017 

The alarm clock rings early, and I am still asleep when it rings—an oddity, for an erstwhile early riser. But I am full from stacks of pancakes and fastnachts consumed last night at our church’s Shrove Tuesday celebration, and the surfeit of starch makes me sleepy.

It’s hard, getting up on Ash Wednesday, where attendance at the 7:00AM service has been a ritual for my eldest daughter and me since she was in kindergarten. Now in seventh grade, I have to coax her to leave the warmth of her bed; her sleepy liturgical convictions are not quite as strong as when she was six.

There are moments of disconnect in the liturgical calendar. There is disconnect on Palm Sunday, when we jubilantly sing “Hosanna!” knowing only moments later, we will be shouting “Crucify him!” There is disconnect on Ash Wednesday, where sparkly eye shadow from the annual Shrove Tuesday church talent show leaves trails of glitter that will soon succumb to ashes. Moments of euphoric happiness segue into dark despair in the space of what feels like a heartbeat.

I wonder: for an infinite God, did the space between His Son’s first cry and last breath feel like a moment, or an eternity?

Dragging myself out of bed on Ash Wednesday often feels pointless. I am going to get up, go to church, hear a homily, and receive my ashes—for what? To remember I am dust, and to dust I will return? To cross something off my to-do list? To go through the day marked, as it were, and have one or more people kindly tell me I have dirt on my face?

Ash Wednesday—all of Lent, at times—feels futile. Even my daughter’s starry-eyed six-year-old devotion has faded, with the repetition of year after year, season after season, always more of the same. We pray and chant and confess and lament, all the way to Good Friday…all the while still committing the same sins that made Good Friday necessary in the first place. Like the reveler who on New Year’s Day reaches half-awake for the coffee she has ostensibly given up, downing it before she remembers her resolution, we seem doomed to failure before we even try.

We pray and chant and confess and lament, all the way to Good Friday…all the while still committing the same sins that made Good Friday necessary in the first place.

And that, of course, is the point, is it not? Our virtue and our depravity teeter on a razor’s edge, less than a breath moves us from glitter to ashes. We are weak, fickle, incapable of constancy. Like the disciples sleeping in the garden, our resolve—our righteousness—is nothing but filthy rags.

That’s why we need Good Friday. And that’s why, in a way, we need Lent. We need Lent not to call us back to holiness with the presumption that this time we’ll get it right, we need Lent to remind us that, on our own, we will never get it right. That’s the message of the cross.

The God who made us loves us not because of what we can do, but because of Whose we are. He calls us back to confess, lament, and repent…knowing we will fall, and fall, and fall again, carrying on the legacy of His children since He spoke the world into existence. And knowing He loves us still.

Lent will not save us. The early-morning alarm, the rush of resolve, even the prayers and confessions and imposition of ashes are not enough. Only Christ can save us. Lent is our reminder of that eternal truth.

Elrena Evans is Editor and Content Strategist for Christians for Social Action. She holds an MFA in creative writing from Penn State, and has also worked for Christianity Today and American Bible Society. She is the author of a short story collection, This Crowded Night, and co-author of the essay collection Mama, PhD: Women Write About Motherhood and Academic Life. She enjoys spending time with her family, dancing, and making spreadsheets.

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