CAMINANDO WITH JESUS: The Lent We Need
Jesus said, "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.
"So whenever you give alms, do not sound a trumpet before you, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and in the streets, so that they may be praised by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward. But when you give alms, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, so that your alms may be done in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you.
"And whenever you pray, do not be like the hypocrites; for they love to stand and pray in the synagogues and at the street corners, so that they may be seen by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward. But whenever you pray, go into your room and shut the door and pray to your Father who is in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you.
"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.
"Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust consume and where thieves break in and steal; but store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust consumes and where thieves do not break in and steal. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also."
- Matthew 6:1-6,16-21
Lent, by its very design, strips things away. Gone are the alleluias, the flowers, the weddings and the sumptuous meals. The further we journey into Lent, the more that is taken away. Traditionally, images in the church are covered on what was once called Passion Sunday (the fifth Sunday in Lent) as an embodiment of the line from John’s Gospel, “They took up stones therefore to cast at Him, but Jesus hid Himself, and went out of the temple” (8.59). During the final fortnight of Lent, the Gloria Patri is removed from the psalms at the Daily Office and the Introit. By the time we limp toward the Triduum, the traditional office is stripped down to basically the psalms. For 40 days we have been stripped down so we may die with Our Lord in order to know the power of his Resurrection.
The pandemic, of course, has added another, non-liturgical abrasion. The stripping continues. We are stripped of physical community, perhaps the solace of sacred space, and, this Lent, even the imposition of ashes.
If your Ash Wednesday does not have the imposition of ashes, this will not be the first time. On January 18, 1548, King Edward VI’s Privy Council abolished the use of candles, palms and ashes. For the first time, Candlemas, Ash Wednesday and Palm Sunday were celebrated without the very objects that supplied the name. Yet a year later, in the first Book of Common Prayer, there was a liturgy for Ashe-Wednisdaye. The sacramental was gone, but the substance remained. Even though no ashes were imposed, the words spoke powerfully to the point of the season and the abrasive devotions that traditionally accompany it. The faithful were called to “earnest and true repentance” and to flee from “such vices, for the which ye affirm with your own mouths.”
I think the imposition of ashes is extraordinarily powerful as a sacramental and heaven knows the Privy Council would have thrown me in the Tower for resisting such reforms, but it may not be a bad thing if we have to do without ashes this year, at least in the way we are used to receiving them. Ashes on foreheads should not be the reason for joyful selfies on social media or virtue signaling of our piety (lest we forget the Gospel for the day). Ashes should be a sign of our mortality, conviction of sin and desire for mercy. We wouldn’t smile if we had to wear our internet search history, text messages or transcripts of our inner dialogue, all of which can be real signs of how far we’ve allowed the distance between ourselves and the love of Jesus Christ to grow. Sprinkled on our heads, the burnt dust will fall down our face, hands and feet, reminding us that it is not what goes into a person, Our Lord said, that defiles, but what comes out. From our thoughts flow our actions.
Lent, by its very design, strips things away. Layer after layer of pride, envy, hardness, ingratitude, it all needs to be removed, rubbed off, so that it is no longer we that live, but Jesus Christ within us. This is not the Lent we want, but it may be the Lent we need.
The Rev. Stephen C. Rice is the rector of St. Timothy's, Winston-Salem.
Tags: Caminando with Jesus