JOEL 2:1-2, 12-17, ISAIAH 58:1-12
PSALM 51:1-17, 2 CORINTHIANS 5:20B-6:10
MATTHEW 6:1-6, 16-21
Lection for Ash Wednesday, February 22, 2012
My Messenger: Rev. Naomi King
Joel 2:1-2, 12-17
2 Corinthians 5:20b-6:10
Matthew 6:1-6, 16-21
The Lenten Heart
The season of Epiphany draws to a close Tuesday night (Fat Tuesday where Carnival is celebrated). We wake on Ash Wednesday to a penitential season, Lent, a season of turning and making amends, a season of seeking to reconcile our hearts with the way of the Most Merciful and the Most Compassionate. The Gospel text reminds us, though, not to enter the season of Lent with great show in order to be known as pious people. Pray, give, live compassionately, make amends because it is the way of steadfast love, but not to be praised for praying, or to be known as a generous or compassionate or contrite person. As the prophet Joel reminds us, “rend your hearts and not your garments” (2:13).
“I can’t, I’ve given up sugar for Lent, so don’t try and tempt me” I might say, rather than “no cake, thank you, though it does look lovely and you’re so nice to offer it!”
“Wow! I need another cup of coffee,” I might exclaim, “because I’ve been up so early all of Lent with extra prayers. My knees are so sore!” For how else would anyone know I’ve been good and sticking to my Lenten discipline?
I’m not proud of my Lenten disciplines that left behind and neatly avoided the spirit of transforming love for forty days and nights, while I needed to publicly live my discipline. But I know that I’m not alone in that particular temptation. But when I needed others to recognize my Lenten discipline as particularly worthy, I was not tuning myself into the Holy. I was only attuned to my own sense of worthiness attached to the difficulty of the spiritual discipline.
Jesus’ recommendations, delivered in the gospel of Matthew, would suggest to us that taking up a spiritual discipline because we want to be noticed or known for doing the right thing is the wrong thing to do. Our hearts aren’t in the spiritual discipline for the spiritual life, but for our reputations. A better Lenten discipline would be not taking one on at all and sort through why it matters to us so much what others think about our piety or spiritual lives. The season of Lent invites us to a season of discipline, of learning how to follow the way of steadfast love through challenges and weakness and trouble. It is not a season of practice, of games to drop in and out of as suits us, but of rededication to the Holy.
Seeking forgiveness, making amends, or picking up a spiritual discipline when we just want to escape the uncomfortable reality of what we have done that we should not have done or the even more uncomfortable reality of what we left undone that needed doing is not the way of transforming love. Spiritual disciplines, seeking and offering forgiveness, and making amends will bring us into far greater intimacy with our less wonderful selves. That is why making amends, forgiveness, and spiritual disciplines are not pursuits for the faint of heart, but have to be grown into over time, preferably with spiritual companions to encourage and hold us accountable along the way.
This Lent, quietly and with true contrition, let us pursue the way of steadfast love. If we find ourselves wanting to announce a spiritual discipline so we can be praised for our piety, let’s wrestle with that. If we find ourselves afraid to enter into a spiritual discipline, because we are not already sure we can fulfill it, good, let’s help one another along, growing and stretching in new ways. This is a season of turning, of knowing our hearts and knowing that the Holy knows them too, in all their imperfection. The wonder of wonders and mercy of mercies is that even as imperfect, sinful, and weak as we may be, the way of steadfast love is still open to us, and we are welcome.