Ash Wednesday — 1 March 2017
Trinity – 12:15 pm
Isaiah 58:1-12 | Psalm 103:8-14 | 2 Corinthians 5:20b-6:10 | Matthew 6:1-6,16-21
“And whenever you fast, do not look dismal, like the hypocrites, for they disfigure their faces so as to show others that they are fasting. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward.” [Matthew 6:16]
So, what are you giving up for Lent?
It’s funny how quickly this question arises for us, and among us, as we begin the season of Lent. Or at least it does, and always has, for me. Lent has always been, from my early childhood, about “giving up” something. Or so it seems, and so I remember, although it’s probably not completely true!
The traditional themes of Lent are reflected in today’s Gospel, in which Jesus talks about almsgiving, prayer and fasting. Likewise, as we will hear in a few minutes, the Prayer Book expresses the Church’s tradition about the observance of Lent, “by self-examination and repentance; by prayer, fasting, and self-denial; and by reading and meditating on God’s holy Word.” [BCP p 265]
But what I remember most clearly from when I was growing up was especially the self-denial part. Lent was for giving up stuff. If it was something I enjoyed, I had to give it up. (Incidentally, this is not an accusation of my priests or Sunday School teachers, it’s a statement about me and what I was hearing!) We had to give up chocolate. (Well, that’s probably not a bad thing!) We had to give up desserts at dinner. (Also probably not a bad thing!) We had to give up going to the movies. And at least in some years we had to give up television. Or reading books that were purely entertainment or recreational. Lent was really pretty miserable! And you could tell how miserable it was by how disfigured our faces were so much of the time! (Even without ashes!)
Perhaps you get my point. And, I think, Jesus’ point.
This is not to say that any or all of these self-denials may not be appropriate parts of your Lenten observance. That’s between you and God, and perhaps your spiritual director if you have one. But to the extent that we assume Lent is a time to make ourselves miserable and not have any fun, we probably need to take a better look at what we think we’re about in our Lenten observance.
In these more recent times, as I suspect you know, we have tended to put more emphasis on what we were taking on for Lent rather than what we were giving up. And generally, I think, that’s good. Prayer, for instance, and reading and meditating on God’s holy Word. Yes, by all means. Perhaps participation in some additional service activity. And let us not forget the words of the prophet Isaiah: “Is not this the fast that I choose: to loose the bonds of injustice, to undo the thongs of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free, and to break every yoke? Is it not to share your bread with the hungry, and bring the homeless poor into your house; when you see the naked, to cover them, and not to hide yourself from your own kin?” [Isaiah 58:6-7]
But if we are honest with ourselves, we understand that if we are going to take on something for Lent, this may well, and perhaps should, involve giving up something else. Not because there is any merit in being dismal, but because it’s good to remind ourselves that we can’t have it all. And, frankly, in this modern world, particularly in our own society, we come perilously close to assuming that we can have whatever we want. Most of us have too much stuff – physical, psychological, emotional – in our lives. And just like our basement or our attic, sometimes we need to clean it out.
The season of Lent exists not for its own sake, not primarily at least, but because it is a time of spiritual preparation for Easter. And Easter is not just the celebration of the Resurrection of our Lord Jesus Christ, although it is certainly that. But not only that. It’s not “Jesus Christ is risen today, Alleluia, How Nice For Him!” The Risen Christ is the promise and the guarantee of our own eternal destiny; Jesus is what St. Paul calls “the first fruits.” [1Cor 15:20] I think we ought not to worry overmuch about the specifics of what that will be like. We simply don’t know. And that’s then, and this is now. But we do believe, and have confidence, and trust, that this is not all there is. And if we are wise, and faithful, we will prepare ourselves to be ready for then.. May God grant us all the grace of a blessed Lent!