Today is Ash Wednesday, the first day of the season of Lent. This day marks the beginning of a journey we will make together, a journey towards Jerusalem where we will meet the Lord in his Passion and Resurrection. This is a time for prayer and for fasting, a time for denying the false self and embracing the true self God intends us to become, a time for drawing near to God in the intimacy of love.
It has long been our practice as Christians to adopt some spiritual practice during the season of Lent that will draw us closer to God and nearer to the true self God intends us to be. For some, it is a “giving up” – breaking some unhealthy habit, for instance, or examining prayerfully some disordered attachment in our lives in order to gain freedom from it. For others, it is a “taking on” – adopting a healthy practice, or engaging our minds and bodies in new and life-giving ways, or reaching out to others.
There are dangers to be avoided, as our readings today attest. We must be conscious of our motives in taking on such practices. The prophet Isaiah warns those who serve their own interests by their fasting and ignore the needs of those who are hungry or homeless or oppressed. Jesus warns of the danger of practicing our piety before others in order to be noticed and praised by them. Do these things in secret, he tells us, and your Father who sees in secret will reward you.
If you are wondering what sort of Lenten practice might be appropriate for you, here are some suggestions:
1. Do something meaningful. Select a practice that will make a real difference in your life or in the lives of others. Spiritual disciplines are only helpful when they’re helpful. They are the means to an end, not the end itself. Above all, seek to do something that matters.
2. Cut back. Fletcher Harper, an Episcopal priest writes, “In a society where the average child sees 20,000 TV commercials each year, and the average adult will have seen two million TV commercials by the age of 65 – all of these 30-second spots urging us to consume more – practicing material restraint can feel like a heavy lift. Christianity’s ascetical tradition offers useful, countercultural wisdom: that by unplugging from the consumerist treadmill, we find God.”[i] Use Lent as a season to cut back. Buy only what you truly need. Give away possessions you no longer use. Talk back to TV commercials – or simply stop watching them.
3. Go green. “Respecting the earth is frequently depicted in sentimental ways, as a ‘nice’ thing to do,” says Harper, “but the reality is starker and more significant. Protecting the environment saves lives – particularly the lives of the poor, who are disproportionately burdened by pollution of all kinds. From creating less toxic pollution and few greenhouse gas emissions to protecting clean air, water, and food, living green creates tangible benefits that protect people’s health and lives.”[ii] Choose some way or ways to “go green” this Lent: drive less, recycle more, put in a garden, clean up some trash. There are thousands of ways we can make a difference.
4. Draw near to God. Draw near to God “by self-examination and repentance; by prayer, fasting and self-denial; and by reading and meditating on God’s holy Word” (BCP, p.265).
Draw near to God by befriending the poor; by doing something – no matter how seemingly insignificant – to help them help themselves. Draw near to God by reviewing and renewing your Rule of Life – making sure that it reflects the way you intend to live – and then resolve again to keep it. Draw near to God, asking God to create in you a new and right spirit, that you may be “the righteousness of God” in the world. Whatever you do, do it with the desire to draw closer to the One who created you and redeemed you and who loves you more than you will ever be able to imagine.
May God grant you a holy Lent.
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