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Lent started this week, a new liturgical season, and once again I’m reminded of my love of the church calendar. It provides a rhythm to church life and reflects back the rhythms of our own lives as well.

Lent is typically a time of penitence, fasting, and prayer in preparation for the Easter season. Our church services become more subdued — the “alleluias” give way to more quiet reflection. There’s an austerity during Lent, and I love that the church calendar makes room for such a season. We all experience seasons of plenty and seasons of scarcity, seasons of waiting and seasons of celebration — why shouldn’t we experience these in church as well?

This year, I’ve been thinking about Lent in the context of a podcast I’ve been listening to recently. The Dream podcast just wrapped up its second season which focused on the wellness industry. It was an exposé of sorts, digging into the questionable claims and practices of this burgeoning industry. Think Gwyneth Paltrow’s Goop and you’ll have an idea of the kinds of things the podcast explored — crystals, supplements, essential oils, energy work, and more.

While exploring the various practices and beliefs of those in the wellness industry, the show also asked questions about why people are so drawn to these things. Answers varied from the failure of our broken healthcare system to religious beliefs to distrust of the government and pharmaceutical industry.

I think another answer might be our cultural obsession with beauty and “health” and the moral weight we give to these things. Americans go to great lengths to escape any reminder of aging and their own mortality. For some the wellness industry has had a beneficial and empowering impact. But there’s definitely a dark side to it — exploiting people’s fears about losing their health, growing old, and dying in order to make a profit. It gives people the false idea that they can fully control every variable that might impact their health.

In many ways, Lent, and especially Ash Wednesday, sends the opposite message — all is not necessarily well. In fact, a lot of life is kind of terrible. Many parts of it are totally beyond our control, “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.”

Ash Wednesday forces us to face our own mortality and to acknowledge that the cycle of life and death is inescapable. It’s a humbling experience, to receive the ashes and be told that you are dust.

Ash Wednesday and Lent are also an invitation into lamentation, an openness about the grief of life. Life is not always great, and this season allows us to acknowledge that in church. It’s like Rachel Held Evans described it last year in one of her final blog posts, a “Lent for the Lamenting.” Though as Christians we have hope in Christ’s resurrection and victory over death, that does not necessarily take the sting and suffering out of this life.

There is something beautiful about being given the space to face this head on. In Lent, the church provides room for us to grieve and lament in a society that otherwise doesn’t really know what to do with these emotions. And as our deacon reminded us at our Ash Wednesday service, the beauty of Lent in the church is that we don’t have to go through any of this on our own. Things are not well, but we don’t travel this road alone. We have fellow Christians, those who have gone before us, and Christ who became human and walked the path of suffering and grief as well.

Allison Vander Broek

Allison Vander Broek is a historian of American religion and politics. She earned her doctorate in history from Boston College, Her research explored the origins of the right-to-life movement in the 1960s and its rise to national prominence in subsequent years. Though she swore she'd move back to the Midwest after grad school, Allison still resides in the Boston metro area and now works in academic advising at Tufts University.

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