Lent never seems to arrive on time.

Whenever we’re ready for it, it seems to come too late in the calendar year, and when it arrives early, it seems we’ve just put the Christmas decorations away.

With the arrival of Ash Wednesday this year, we’re faced again with the Christian imperatives of discipline, self-sacrifice, giving alms, and reaching out in charity to our neighbors. Although these are staples in the Christian life, they seem to receive a higher profile during the season of Lent.

Lent is that period of 40 days in which the Christian world celebrates the foolishness of following Jesus Christ through that period of his life which led to his passion, and death. The paradox of calling this a celebration is understood in Jesus’ resurrection.

Images of the Christ-clown, Christ-fool of French artist, Georges Rouault, come to mind. He was the misunderstood one who did not avoid the foolishness of the cross. The one who dared to find out that submission to death on the cross was the bridge to resurrection, no matter how it might look to the objective (naked) eye.

Christians commit themselves to joining Jesus in his desert experience. In doing so, they acknowledge the emptiness they have experienced in scattering their love indiscriminately. They admit we have chased false idols and believed temporary truths. They face again the fact they are a people for whom waiting is a way of life. They follow the accused Jesus and turn themselves in as being guilty of being one of his followers.

Ash Wednesday ranks as one of those few days in the year when they don’t mind the foolishness of the sign of the cross.

Christians literally become a marked people. They walk with smudged foreheads into offices, classrooms, airports, and the streets of the city, wearing the sign of the season on their very body for all to see. In one of his earlier books, Seasons of Celebration, Trappist monk Thomas Merton called the ashes “spiritual medicine.”

“They bring the grace of that humility which they signify, they bring also the pardon which we implore by the act of receiving them.”

Because foolishness and Lent go together, it’s not unusual that the prelude to the season brings a “mardi gras,” a “fat Tuesday.” The fattening up before the days of lean ahead.

In choosing the disciplines of Lent, Christians make visible their counter-cultural stance as a people of faith, and choose the liberation which sacrifice brings. New life is their goal. They set their sights on the new life that doesn’t end with death. Because of the example of Jesus, life through death is the ultimate paradox, and their ultimate destiny.

The main character in Ron Hansen’s novel, Mariette in Ecstasy, is a 17-year-old girl who enters a contemplative community in upstate New York in the early 1900s. She becomes a problem in the community when she develops wounds in her hands, feet and side that correspond to the sufferings of the crucified Christ. In the last paragraph of the novel she reflects on the Christ who continues to call individuals to be formed in freedom.

“We try to be formed and kept by him, but instead, he offers us freedom. And now when I try to know his will, his kindness floods over me, his great love overwhelms me and I hear him whisper, Surprise me.”

Who is this God who wants the spontaneity of our love?

The foolishness of this kind of God and the foolishness of the cross just don’t compute in the beleaguered times in which we live. They catch the mind off guard but give hope to the heart.During the Lenten season, Christians are called to a generosity of the heart that stretches the body in service, and the imagination in its concept of God, and its concept of their very selves.

This period of Lent becomes an invitation to be permeated by and imitate the foolishness of Jesus Christ and especially to join him in that lack of self-consciousness, called love, which is the only preparation for the practice of resurrection.

This post was written by Dominican Sister of Hope Jo-Ann Iannotti, OP. It was taken from her recently published book, Remember, Return, Rejoice: Journeying from Ash Wednesday to Easter Sunday. Sister Jo-Ann is the Art and Spirituality Coordinator at Wisdom House Retreat Center in Litchfield, CT.

Cover image: Flickr: John