"When you fast, put oil on your head and wash your face …
and your Father who sees in secret will reward you" (Matt. 6: 17/18)
I always find that injunction of our Lord rather worrying as we prepare for the imposition of ashes on our foreheads! Does that mean that we shouldn't - that the whole exercise contradicts Jesus' teaching? I remember a time when I was in the Franciscans and some in the community were so concerned about those words that it was suggested we simply anoint each other with oil. But it didn't catch on.
Yet the principle stands - what matters is the way our heart is changed, not what we do with the body. Of course, when religious observance was a matter of boasting, as in the time of Jesus, it was right to tell people 'not to wear their religion on their sleeves'. But we live in a different age and in a different culture. Walking down the street with a cross smeared in ash on your forehead should be a sign of faith. We don't do it to show that we are better than others: we do it because it reminds everyone of that simple fact - "Dust you are and to dust you shall return."
LOOKING FORWARD TO EASTER
Lent, of course, is the season of preparation for Easter. To keep a 'good' Lent doesn't mean that we have managed to observe our Lent rule - our fasting or prayer or whatever. Keeping a 'good' Lent means that we have made a good preparation for Easter - have prepared ourselves to realise, again, that to which we are called. Fullness of life in Christ.
Like me, many of you will have spent years trying to do that. I haven't counted how many Lenten rules I have created - or how many times I have failed to keep them! Sometimes it can all feel a bit depressing as one begins to start the process all over again and I catch myself, sometimes, asking, 'Why bother?'. Why not just be a 'Sunday Christian', go for my weekly, monthly or whatever dose of that certain 'feel-good factor' that can come after attending church and leave it at that. After all, does God notice?
Well, I don't know whether God notices or not, but I know that I am called into a relationship with Christ from which I cannot escape. He beckons to me, even when I turn aside, and invites me to be at-one with Him. I know I am loved by Him and I cannot turn from that love. As they hymn says:
O Love that wilt not let me go,
I rest my weary soul in thee;
I give thee back the life I owe,
That in thine ocean depths its flow
May richer, fuller be.
We stand at the threshold of Lent knowing that, for just forty days, we are called to focus more deeply into that relationship so that at Easter we can, in some way, know the joy of being at-one with the Risen Christ.
PRAYER AND FASTING
So we are invited to consider the time we spend in prayer and to consider the question of fasting. It's a season when we 'spring-clean' our lives: look at the clutter we have accumulated and decide on something that we should let go of, if only for this season. And the reason we do that is so that our lives might be more fruitful. Ever gardener knows the importance of time spent weeding, hoeing and all the rest. That special preparation to help the garden thrive and be more fertile so that it's abundance can flourish. Let's make sure the garden of our lives is tended with more care this Lent. After all, it's the most important thing you have. Your life. And if you strip away anything, make sure it's the weeds that are choking new growth. Let some light into your soul and let your garden breathe. Give it some fallow time - time for the rain to gently caress its soil and the sun to shine on it.
FASTING FOR THE GOOD OF ALL
And remember, fasting is never just for my own benefit. As our reading made clear, our fasting must also be for the benefit of all. As one, young, Episcopal priest said: 'Part of our Lenten discipline, then, should be reclaiming and reaffirming our physical selves and the physical selves of others. Seeking balance with our neighbors, the earth, and our well-being is really where we ought to be headed. Taking care of the physical world rather than exploiting it is, in fact, a spiritual discipline that can help lead us out of the constant upward battle and into a more wholesome existence. (Fr. R. E. Helmer)
So let this Lent be a retreat with the Lord, a time when you have some space to be with him. Clear out some of the weeds that choke your life. Reflect on what's most important for your well-being and the well-being of the world. Look at one thing that needs changing for the benefit of others.
Maybe it will mean just becoming more aware of the way we can so easily forget how our actions affect others.
And, remember, it is Christ who - lovingly - invites us into this Lent with Him, not that our faces can be blackened with despair, but that our lives might be enlightened through His Resurrection.