Here we are once more, it’s Ash Wednesday and Lent begins again. I think it’s the eighth time we’ve had an Ash Wednesday service. Yet it still strikes me that the way we enter Lent is odd when you look at the Gospel Reading set for this day. Jesus says:
Beware of practising your piety before others in order to be seen by them; for then you have no reward from your Father in heaven.… 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.
Yet here we are, not one of us in our room with the door shut. We are gathered together. We see who’s here. And who is not.
And Jesus says,
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…
We’re not exactly going to disfigure our faces, but—a smudge of ash is never going to be a fashion statement, is it?
We are walking contradictions. We gather when we should stay in our room. We put ash on our face when we should look squeaky clean. The charge of hypocrisy always dogs our steps. How do we escape?
Our first instinct is to escape the charge of hypocrisy by trying harder. We want to be right, so we walk the walk and talk the talk. Too often we do it too loudly. We become like the person without love that St Paul talks about:
If I speak in the tongues of mortals and of angels, but do not have love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal. And if I have prophetic powers, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing. If I give away all my possessions, and if I hand over my body so that I may boast, but do not have love, I gain nothing.
Our own efforts lead us to a dead end.
If we fast, even if it’s just giving up choccies, it’s hard not to look at ourselves. Will I lose a kilo or two over Lent? Will I avoid having to buy a bigger size? Will my doctor be pleased with my blood sugar next time?
I suspect we can’t really avoid some of these thoughts. But we put them to one side, to fast with Christ. We are called to fast to deny ourselves, and put our attention on him and his needy people.
We’re also called to pray. When we pray, it’s hard to let go of distracting thoughts. So we put them aside, perhaps by imagining them floating down a stream. And it’s hard for some of us to avoid checking how well we’re going. I’m praying much better now! I think. Am I really?
We’re called to give. Not so we can be proud. But because we have so much more than so many do, and we can share.
The journey of Lent teaches us that Jesus Christ has walked the way before us; that he accompanies us on the way; that we go in the right direction as our eyes are fixed on the goal rather than on ourselves.
The story of humanity is that we have each fallen short. Each one, except Jesus Christ. So let’s keep our focus on Jesus.
The next step we take will be to pray a version of the Lenten Prayer of St Ephrem, a Syrian saint who lived in the 300s. Remember—as we do, we focus on Jesus Christ.
Lord of our life,
take from us the spirit of laziness, discouragement,
lust for power and idle talk.
Instead grant to us, your servants,
the spirit of purity, humility, patience and love.
grant us the grace to be aware of our own sins
and refrain from judging others;
for you are blessed forever. Amen.