Blessed be God, three in one: Creator, Redeemer and Sustainer. Amen.
Probably like most of us, I’ve always felt a bit ambivalent about Lent. As a youngster, I would invariably get anxious about the things I was expected to give up by the good sisters in my grammar school: no candy or chocolate, and, by far the toughest, no fighting with my brother. As an adult, as you might expect, I have a somewhat more nuanced and measured view of this season. Yes, you can still deprive yourself of certain things—after all, it’s good at times to let go of a bunch of extra baggage in one’s life—but now I’m more conscious of how Lent is really a time to get back to the essentials. Lent is not so much about physical deprivation, as much as it is about healthy spiritual indulgence, even overindulgence. We don’t often think of Lent as a season of overindulgence; quite the reverse, in fact. So often, it’s seen as a dour and serious time. It can be, but it need not be only that. In fact, what we need to do in Lent is to overindulge in God.
We actually get our cue from today’s gospel reading from Matthew. At one level, there’s a bit of a mixed message from Jesus: fast, yes, but make sure you still look good doing it, and don’t let you right hand know what your left hand is doing. Be so discrete and secretive, in fact, that you’ll even forget what you did. Those are all good things, because it’s about intention and humility, not about pride and creating a public spectacle. It’s about God knowing, not about others admiring or complementing us for our pious works. Jesus makes it abundantly clear that this is the spirit in which one’s penance should be undertaken. There really is something rather freeing about all this. It means we don’t have to perform, to be on display. It also means that we can choose our Lenten observations in a more meaningful way, because only God and we need to know what they are. Only God and we need to know what’s important enough to us to spend so much time on: as though it was our very own little secret. Just between us, between me and God.
The problem with Lenten observations is that they so often sound like New Year’s resolutions, and they invariably end up the same way: half-hearted and invariably guilt-provoking. But Jesus is not calling us to that. He is not calling us to feel guilty about how we prepare or fail to prepare ourselves for the celebration of the central mystery of our faith, the Resurrection. We are only asked to walk with Jesus to Jerusalem: modestly, sincerely, and as we are best able to; nothing more, yet certainly nothing less. That is the message behind this teaching from Matthew’s gospel. This is the treasure we are promised: a treasure not subject to the shifts and reversals of the world, but one grounded in our encounter with God in the secrecy of our heart. Because only God knows what we are capable of.
What might it mean to overindulge in God? Down through the ages, the great teachers of the Christian tradition have proposed many different paths and suggested a variety of disciplines. Three in particular stand out: prayer, scripture and spiritual reading, and the Eucharist. Prayer engages God in conversation. It sharpens our sense of contemplative listening, opening us up to the promptings of the Spirit who prays incessantly in us, Saint Paul says. Scripture and spiritual reading engage both the mind and the heart. They can inspire and move us, and remind us of the continuing, active presence of God in the word. This word is not exclusively biblical. It can also be heard in many other texts to which the same Spirit gives life and inspiration. And in the Eucharist, of course, we come to the central act of God’s presence, and to the gathering of God’s body in and through those of our sisters and brothers. The Eucharist feeds and restores us deeply; it is a homecoming. These are three Lenten disciplines that we can deepen or else return to if we have been somewhat negligent in the last while about our spiritual life.
Silence, however, is the place where God resides, and it is there we must go if we want to abide in the divine presence. Silence is where we can best indulge in God. We live in a loud and boisterous world. We are wired, connected, plugged in and e-mailed to the point of distraction. All this noise, as necessary and efficient as it may be, can also serve to shield us, to keep us away from where we truly need to be, or from what we really need to do. Silence can be frightening; it is where we feel most vulnerable, because we never know what might come echoing back. But God speaks in silence. In this Lenten season, perhaps we should learn to welcome silence and to relish it. In abiding in silence, we are learning to luxuriate in God.
“We begin our journey to Easter with the sign of ashes, an ancient sign, speaking of the frailty and uncertainty of human life, and marking the penitence of the community as a whole.” In a few moments, we will hear these words, and we will be invited to come forward and have our foreheads marked. In many religious traditions, ashes are an especially rich symbol of human contingency. They mark contrition and repentance. They are a way of saying that we are imperfect, that we are only all too human, that we too have sinned, and that we are sorry. Ashes also provide a symbolic foretaste of death, reminding us quite dramatically that we are not immortal, that we too will die. There is yet another sense in which we can look at the symbolism of ashes. Ashes contain nutrients. They help things grow, thus reflecting the essence of life itself: the never-ending cycle of death and rebirth. It is also the Christian story. From pain and suffering and death come resurrection and rebirth. It is the Easter story. The ritual of the imposition of ashes taps into deep and perennial truths about our lives as humans….and our faith as Christians.
May this Lenten season be for us a time of overindulgence in God’s abiding presence, in God’s goodness, in God’s mercy, and in God’s abundant and generous care. Whatever the spiritual discipline we may choose—or the type of silence we may try to experience or tap into—may this also be a time of fresh beginnings for us. But don’t forget to wash your face and comb your hair, and don’t tell your left hand what your right hand is doing, for God “who sees in secret will reward you.”