Today is Ash Wednesday, marked literally and figuratively by the ashes that will be placed upon our foreheads as a sign and reminder of our mortality. It is the beginning of Lent, which is the season of forty days and forty nights between now and Easter (not including Sundays). This period of time echoes and reminds us of Jesus’ own time in the wilderness when, immediately after his baptism, he was sent by the Spirit of God into the wasteland where “He fasted forty days and forty nights, and afterwards he was famished” (Matt. 4:2). Then he was tempted, yet Jesus did not succumb to the clever words and delicious offerings of Satan.
So after saying “this is my son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased” God the Father sends him out into the wilderness to be tempted! What did you do after the baptism of your child? It is there, far from humanity that Jesus suffered the most human of temptations. We remember and emulate his example as we stand firm against the pressures of this world. So it is that Lent is considered a time of deprivation and denial.
But this is too simplistic a view of the season. In a few moments, you will be invited, in the words of the Book of Common Prayer, “to the observance of a holy Lent, by self-examination and repentance; by prayer, fasting, and self-denial; and by reading and meditating on God’s holy Word.”
What does this mean to observe a holy Lent? Most of us think immediately of fasting and self-denial. The stereotypes are that we “give up” something for Lent. It used to be meat or wine, chocolate or sex. This week I saw many declaring that they would be giving up Facebook and social media. Others are giving up sugars or carbohydrates, moving beyond the more traditional “no desert Lent.”
The general idea is that you should set aside, you should fast from, something that you enjoy to remind yourself of your mortality and bring our focus back to God. This approach is not inherently bad, after all, Jesus fasted while in the wilderness and the Bible and our Book of Common Prayer instruct us to fast at certain times. But it removes fasting and self-denial from prayer and most of us, in practice, struggle to keep that our focus upon God and instead mark our progress towards (or failure to meet) that external goal. We often end up spending Lent discussing how hard it is to do without desert, for example, rather than delving into a study of how to pray and foster the spiritual disciplines.
Consider again the invitation and notice that “fasting and self denial” are only two elements of the seven we are called upon to observe. We are invited “to the observance of a holy Lent, by self-examination and repentance; by prayer, fasting, and self-denial; and by reading and meditating on God’s holy Word.” First and foremost we are to enter into a time of self-examination and repentance.
It is not a coincidence that these two tasks are listed first because our journey to spiritual health begins with a careful taking stock of our lives. Self-reflection is necessary so that we can fully appreciate both our need and the extent of the grace that God offers in forgiveness. The Litany of Penitence that we will recite together offers a beginning of that inventory. As we pray this litany we each need to reflect upon what specific barriers exist within that keep God from entering into our lives, consider where our priorities are not God’s, and how our particular, selfish appetites harm others and keep us from loving our neighbor as ourselves.
This self-examination leads to repentance which in turn will lead us to move further into our relationship with God through “prayer, fasting, and self-denial; and by reading and meditating on God’s holy Word.” We must begin with the internal for as the prophet Joel says,
Recognition of our sins should grieve us and lead us to fast, weep, and mourn, but those outwards symbols of mourning which in antiquity were the ripping of clothing and the putting on of ash, are meaningless unless this indicate the rending of our hearts.
As we enter into Lent it is good and appropriate for us to engage in “fasting and self-denial,” but we must remember that what God asks is that these external signs be the merest tip of evidence of the internal transformation that comes from our true repentance. As Jesus reminds us, no one but God should know about your prayer and your fasting.
So don’t send out that Tweet declaring your abstinence from cupcakes or your respite from making fun of politicians. And as you leave today consider using the tissue to remove the ash from your forehead. God knows that you are here, that you have humbled yourself before him and that you have asked with sincerity, Lord, “Wash me thoroughly from my iniquity, and cleanse me from my sin” (Ps. 51:2). This is a matter between you and God, no one else need nor should they know.
This is where Lent begins, on Ash Wednesday with self-examination and repentance. Then as we move forward on this spiritual journey rather than giving up something, you are to take up the discipline of prayer and fasting, of reading and meditating on God’s word.
Remember, fasting is a function of prayer. There is a reason why our liturgy says it is “by prayer, fasting, and self-denial.” Fasting and self-denial are servants of prayer. They should only be for a time, such as forty days, or even only a day, but they are to focus our prayers, hearts, and minds upon God, his word, and his will for us. They are never goal or objectives on their own.
So as we leave here with cleansed hearts and brows, setting aside the weight of sin, let us take up the Cross of Christ, offering to God “a broken and contrite heart,” strengthened and renewed in the knowledge that God does not despise such a sacrifice.