In my more than 30 years teaching Sunday School at St. John’s Church, Lafayette Square (now proudly also called “Black Lives Matter Plaza”) in our nation’s capital, I routinely drilled my classes of middle and high school students and adult inquirers in dates, liturgies and other practices associated with Ash Wednesday and the six and a half weeks of Lent.
We discussed the significance of the ashes (signs of our mortality and equality in the care of a divine creator who has “the whole world in His hands.”
As the classes increased in age and maturity, we talked more and more about what it means to say that Lent is a largely “penitential” season:
• A time to feel sorry, to lament, and to change, not just “mood agents” like the flowers missing from the church but also the music — the more somber, meditative and empowering minor keys of our hymns and litanies, devoid of distracting “hallelujahs” and “glorias”
• The substitution of somber arrays for our church drapings and vestments — purple, violet or Sarum Blue and then black in the concluding Holy Week before Easter.
In time we discussed giving up things like unhealthy food, drink, and other indulgences that are manifestly not good for us. As the church school classes aged and matured, we prayed and prayed for strength of character that would sustain us in such abstinent behavior, not just for the duration of the Lenten season but forever.
I taught that in Lent we were patterning our seasonal behavior after the earthly life of Jesus of Nazareth, who embarked on his three years of sacred ministry by first demonstrably resisting perilous temptations.
Finally, I explained, year after year, the importance of:
• Honest assessment in identifying our material (not just trivial) misdeeds and neglects.
• Reinforcement of that assessment through confession to oneself, to others, and of course, to God
• Palpable” repentance by making real and permanent changes in our ways.
Frank adoption of this behavioral “troika” of Lent — assessment, confession, and repentant change — can and will make a better you and me.
— The Rev. Dr. Wesley S. Williams Jr., J.D., LL.D., D. Min., K.St.J, is Washington National Cathedral Priest Scholar and Chaplain, and he previously served as priest in charge at three churches in the Episcopal Diocese of the Virgin Islands.