Joel 2:1-2,12-17/Isaiah 58:1-12; 2 Corinthians 5:20b-6:10; Matthew 6:1-6,16-21; Psalm 103:8-14
Well, it’s Ash Wednesday. And we can’t be in the church. We couldn’t even get together for pancakes yesterday. That’s upsetting. It’s something we look forward to every year.
But hey, at least it’s not COVID this time, right? It’s just run-of-the mill winter weather. A longer spell of winter weather than our area has seen in quite a while. Maybe it’s kind of a metaphor for Lent. Once again, we give things up. We do without. Lent is a season that’s kind of…different. Most of our time in the church year doesn’t have specific personal practices that we are called to take on. But Lent certainly does. Let’s look at the things we do on Ash Wednesday and during Lent.
First, we fast. Well, I don’t fast. I’m diabetic and fasting is not a really good idea for diabetics. Our bodies generally don’t regulate glucose well enough to get away with it. But I might abstain from rich food and keep my diet very simple.
Another thing we do is give things up. I’ve given up various things for Lent at various times. I’ve given up beer. I’ve given up chocolate – not sure I’ll ever do that again.
I think one of the most important things we do on Ash Wednesday is take a good long look at the fact that we are mortal. We will die. When ashes are imposed on our foreheads we are told, “You are dust, and to dust you shall return.” That’s some pretty heavy stuff. It’s actually one of the things I love about the Episcopal Church. We don’t shy away from death. We look it square in the face.
But I was reading today’s Gospel and the thought suddenly struck me. Today, many Christians – including many Episcopalians – will do something that Jesus told us specifically not to do.
Today, many people will have gone to an early service and had their ashes imposed. Then they will wear their ashes all day. When I was a young Southern Baptist I worked as a counterman for McDonald’s for a couple of years. I usually worked evenings, and one Wednesday a year, I would see people coming in with a smudge on their forehead. After fasting all day, people would go to Ash Wednesday service, have their heads marked with ashes, then break their fast by stopping for some fast food. In the Southern Baptist church, we didn’t celebrate Ash Wednesday or Lent, so I was totally confused by this.
And people wore their ashes proudly. I’ve done it myself – got my ashes and then gone out into public.
But we really shouldn’t do that. It’s something Jesus warned about – taking your personal piety public. From today’s Gospel:
“Beware of practicing your piety before others in order to be seen by them; for then you have no reward from your Father in heaven.”
“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. But when you fast, put oil on your head and wash your face, so that your fasting may be seen not by others but by your Father who is in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you.”
Fasting was a common practice throughout the history of Israel. It was done to show repentance. People would put on rough cloth as clothing and pour ashes on their heads. But it often became a show for others. “See how pious and repentant I am?”
The reading from the prophet Joel echoes the gospel reading: “Rend your hearts and not your clothing.”
You see, people had missed the whole point. Repentance is not to be a show. It’s meant to be an inward change.
To paraphrase Jesus, personal piety is a good thing as long you keep it personal. When we practice our piety as a show for others, we receive no spiritual benefit.
And I have nothing against giving something up for Lent, but think that doing that is often kind of like making New Year’s resolutions. It seems like a good idea at the time, but it doesn’t tend to make any lasting difference in most of our lives. Either we fail to keep it up, and then feel guilty, or we manage to get through Lent but then go right back to whatever we gave up as soon the Feast of the Resurrection comes around. No lasting difference. Honestly, how often do you hear someone say, “Giving up cheese for Lent really changed my spiritual life!”?
Lent isn’t about giving things up. It’s about spiritual growth. The goal of Lent is not to tear ourselves apart. It is to build ourselves up.
So how do we celebrate Lent? What can we do to discipline ourselves spiritually so that we are ready to celebrate the resurrection of the Son of God?
Here’s a weird idea: Rather than picking something to give up during Lent, something that God doesn’t actually seem to object to, maybe we could practice doing the things God wants us to do. Something that will actually help us to grow spiritually.
The book of the prophet Isaiah contains my absolute favorite reading from any of the Prophets. It’s an alternate Old Testament reading today and gives us a clue to what really makes a holy Lent. In chapter 58:
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?
Here is something we can do to make our Lent truly holy. Instead of fasting by not eating or by giving up something we love, we can fast from injustice. We can fast from selfishness. We can fast from being hard hearted.
Perhaps, every day during Lent, we can consciously look for opportunities to work toward justice. To help the oppressed. To clothe the naked. To shelter the homeless. To feed the hungry. Something that will not only benefit others but through which we can improve our own spiritual lives.
Perhaps we can challenge ourselves, rededicate ourselves to be what the Prophet was calling Israel to be. A center of God’s love and justice. A light to the nations. This is how Holy Cross can be God’s church here in Southeast Missouri. We can be a beacon, showing God’s light to everyone.
Here’s how Isaiah continues:
If you remove the yoke from among you,
the pointing of the finger, the speaking of evil,
if you offer your food to the hungry
and satisfy the needs of the afflicted,
then your light shall rise in the darkness
and your gloom be like the noonday.
Can you imagine that? Can you see it?
Even our gloom could be as bright as the noonday. That’s quite a vision. Quite a promise.
And God always keeps His promises.