It's an odd thing, but there really does seem to be "something in " the penitential quality of Lent. I know people sometimes say these days that they feel there's something life-denying about the idea of a penitential season anyway, and that it should be replaced with a celebration of being human, or something to that effect. I've plenty of sympathy with them: after all, we are fully human, as Jesus himself was in his time on earth, and he carries that humanity with him into the risen life he calls us into. His mercy is upon our humanity and our frailty, not on some perfected, bloodless, alchemical essence; and to pretend otherwise tends towards a very warped and jaundiced view of what it is to be human.
But - and it's a big but - the humanity we all inhabit, and on which Jesus' mercy rests, is a fallen, broken humanity this side of heaven, and different in many ways from the life we shall know with him in glory. And we need to recognise that. We need to truly take it on board, and look our own fallenness straight in the eye, and say, "Yes, that's me. It always has been, and without your grace, my Lord, it always would be."
Oh God, it hurts. It's so degrading, looking at the mess inside the pleasant, wholesome exterior. Come on, it is a mess. No good pretending otherwise.
Of course we are capable of good, and love, and self-sacrifice - increasingly so, as the pure water of the Spirit cleanses us, and the good leaven of Christ works its way through out dough. But we'll always let ourselves down, we'll always let him down, all the way to our dying day.
I used to think Paul was being a bit hypocritical, when he wrote in 1 Timothy 1.15: "The saying is sure and worthy of full acceptance, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners - of whom I am the foremost." But he's right, and it seems to me the further I go, the longer I go on trying to follow my Lord, the more I realise just how much mess there is still in me. In all of us, yes - but that doesn't lessen or somehow defuse that fact that it is there in me.
And this is what I think Lent is about - this Lent anyway, for me. If God is ever to do anything with me, I have to look straight at who I really am: not who I'd like to be, nor who I hope you might believe me to be, but who I actually am. And then there might be something approaching solid ground...