“God doesn’t require attention getting devices. He won’t overlook what you are doing; he’ll reward you well.” (Matthew 6: 18 The Message)
Right off the bat I have to admit that I haven’t always been a big fan of Lent. I grew up in a Christian tradition that didn’t keep Lent and when I came to the Anglican tradition I didn’t appreciate the Lenten season. To me it was too much “woe is me, doom and gloom.” All the talk of repentance, fasting and self-denial was not what we needed to be focusing on. I found it all a little depressing.
The Gospel that we read on Ash Wednesday, which begins the Lenten season, didn’t help either. In fact I still feel a little uncomfortable every year when we read it in the liturgy. In Matthew 6: 1-6, 16-21 as part of the Sermon on the Mount, Matthew has Jesus teach about acts of public religiosity. Jesus warns of charitable acts, prayers, and fasting all done in public for others to see. There is no reward in that, only the fleeting attention that you think you receive from your admiring public. Is it ironic or hypocritical that we read that Gospel and then make our prayers and mark our foreheads with ashes? Jesus just warned us about public acts of religiosity and here we are hip deep in the stuff. Aren’t we missing the point?
I also found all the fasting a little trivial. Oh good for you you’re giving up chocolate for 40 days! No Facebook for Lent: good for you! Jesus must be so proud!! Lent, to me, seemed more like a religious self-improvement program or left over New Year’s resolutions. It all seemed to fall short of the life of Jesus, the one we were being called to follow out into the wilderness, to the cross, to death and rebirth.
But despite all this, I found that each year I saw, more and more, that I needed Lent. In fact, I longed for Lent. I needed that time to be called to repentance and self-discipline. I needed to be a part of a faith community that together shifted its focus in Lent. A community that took the desert journey together. We needed to be reminded of our mortality, even as the World told us we could live forever with the right exercise regime, face cream or vitamin supplement. Yes, we are going to die. Death is the elephant in the room that no one wants to talk about. Lent encourages us to embrace the elephant, to come face to face with our mortality. And it demands that we re-prioritize our lives and focus on what matters, the things that last. As Jesus warned, “It’s obvious, isn’t it? The place where your treasure is, is the place you will most want to be, and end up being” (Matthew 6:21, The Message).
Again this Lent, as I read this familiar Ash Wednesday Gospel, I am reminded why we need to keep Lent. Here’s why I think we need to keep Lent.
1. Generosity – Almsgiving is often the most overlooked aspect of Lent but kindness and generosity is something that we surely need more of. We have so much, so, so much! If we’re honest, if I’m honest, I share so little of what I have. But Jesus cautions us to make sure that our giving is about those who receive and not about us. Sadly I think too much of our giving is about us and how it makes us feel. It takes images of starving children or gimmicks to stir our giving. This Lent give, and give generously.
2. Prayer and silence – We live in a busy world and live hectic lives. My number one complaint and the complaint that I hear on the lips of almost everyone I talk with, is “we are so busy, too busy.” I hear that not just from young people and families, but from everyone from children, to retirees, to seniors. We need to keep Lent because it helps us carve out time to be quiet, to pray. For me prayer is silence, a time to listen. I need to listen to God’s Spirit, nature, and to my own body. How can I do that unless I make time? This Lent find a quiet place, at least once a week to be quiet and listen.
3. Fasting – The discipline of fasting is about controlling our appetites so our appetites won’t control us. And let’s face it, in the West we have some very large appetites. These appetites are killing us: physically, financially, environmentally and spiritually. We eat too much, buy too much, lust too much, waste too much and make the tragic mistake that all of this will make us happy. News flash: it won’t! This Lent what do you need to fast from? Which of your appetites is out of control?
So I invite you to keep a holy Lent . . .
Reprinted with permission from Neo(un)Orthodoxy.