I began writing these words on Shrove Tuesday, finishing on Ash Wednesday. The journey from Tuesday into Wednesday for me was a transition from the festive into the solemn, from the season of Epiphany into the season of Lent, from a time of busy-ness and action to a time of reflection and preparation..
On Ash Wednesday, we begin the season of Lent. Inspired by Jesus’ 40 days of fasting and prayer, Lent became a time period of preparation for Easter Baptisms in the Christian Church. During Lent, the Candidates for Baptism fasted and prayed as they prepared to celebrate their Baptisms and the Resurrection of our Lord.
Lent has always been a time of getting ready for Easter. For that reason, any Lenten practice should shape us to live a new life in Christ. This is reflected in the Gospel often read on Ash Wednesday (Matthew 6:1-6, 16-21).
In this Gospel Jesus talks with his the disciples about their faith and their piety and urges them not to seek praise but to practice their piety in such a way that others will be helped and God’s name will be glorified. Jesus is far more concerned with their inner motives than with any recognition they might receive.
Jesus begins by speaking about almsgiving and says all should give to help others and not to seek approval. “Do not sound a trumpet as the hypocrites do.” According to Jesus, the hypocrites, or “play-actors” make a big deal of their piety scene of their giving, but the disciples should not and should give in secret “so that the left hand does not know what the right hand is doing.”
Jesus urges the same kind of attitude in prayer, counseling his followers not to draw attention to themselves but to pray in private to their Heavenly Father.
Similarly, in their fasting, the disciples are told not to make a public spectacle so that all can see their discipline. They should not disfigure their faces to advertise their efforts but anoint their heads and wash their faces to appear as natural as possible.
Jesus’ words to describe true piety point to something deeper than merely running through certain actions, something even more profound than almsgiving or praying or fasting. It has to do with self-denial and Jesus is inviting the disciples to renounce their old selves for the Kingdom of God. He is telling them to say no to craving for affirmation and recognition, and to live a new life. This is something we are all called to do not just in Lent but always as we are renewed in Christ. In Christ our appetites and habits, our priorities and directions are changed so that we share in his resurrected life.
To renounce oneself during Lent is much more than the renouncing a few practices. It is more than simply the giving up things like cigarettes or alcohol. Too often Christians think of renunciation in terms of material things they can deny themselves but the renunciation Jesus calls us to is far deeper. When we renounce the self and forget about the public praise, we are renouncing a whole way of life, of attitudes, values, and perspectives. And we begin to draw very close to Christ.
In the Baptismal liturgy the candidate renounces Satan and all the spiritual forces of wickedness that rebel against God, the evil powers of this world which corrupt and destroy the creatures of God, the sinful desires that draw one from the love of God. This is renunciation with a purpose beyond itself and nurtures a life very close to Christ. . This is renunciation that fosters living the Easter vision. This is renunciation that recognizes the lordship of Jesus Christ and deepens love for him and for one’s neighbour.
On Ash Wednesday our church calls us to begin our journey to Easter. There is nothing that we do in Lent that will make us more acceptable to God for God has already accepted us in Christ. Our practice of Lenten discipline piety is to glorify God not by giving up something we can do without but by taking up something we need, the Cross of the Jesus.
May you keep a holy Lent and have a blessed Easter.