February 10, 2016 ~ Ash Wednesday

Ash Wednesday 2016 C

Jesus warns us to practice our piety in secret. We are not to give alms, to pray, or to fast in a way that plays to an audience of other people. Instead, we are to do these things in secret. And in each case a blessing is attached to this secret practice. As Jesus tells it, “your Father who sees in secret will reward you.”

Hearing these words on this opening day of Lent means that whatever we do by way of Lenten practices is not done for others or even ourselves. The significance of these practices appears at that place where we encounter God. This is a hidden place, concealed from others and often a secret even from ourselves. God meets us in our depths, in places that remain beyond our everyday routine.

Yet it is easy for us to look on our Lenten practices as an area where we can earn rewards, the frequent flyer miles of the spiritual life. If we do well at keeping our Lenten practices then God is pleased with us that much more. If we do not do well then God is that much less pleased with us. But what God sees in secret is something more than our accomplishment or lack thereof.

So you give alms to help people in distress. Perhaps you donate to our local food pantry. Perhaps you write a check to The Episcopal Relief and Development Fund. Maybe you visit the sick, the lonely, and people in prison. The giving of alms can take these forms and many more. And what happens when we give of ourselves? We find out that human suffering is not a problem to be solved like an arithmetic exercise. Instead, we give alms and we find ourselves keeping company, directly or indirectly, with people whose suffering we would rather not have to consider. We lose our innocence about the state of the world; we trade satisfaction for solidarity.

Somebody else is fed or housed or comforted, but we are transformed. That’s the real cost of almsgiving for us. Not only do we empty out a little of our treasure, but we are made a bit more compassionate. This is how God, who sees in secret, rewards us. We would have settled, say, for a framed certificate of appreciation and instead God changes our hearts.

So you pray more than usual during the forty days of Lent. Perhaps you sit in silence before God for a specified period of time, you attend a weekday service, or you say a certain prayer once a day. Keep this up and in time you may make a discovery about prayer.

What we discover is the poverty of our prayer, the emptiness of our words, the shallowness of our silence. Yet through prayer we are made a little more capable of recognizing the presence and generosity of God. Once, we may have believed that prayer changes God, aligns God with our view of the world. In Lent, we find that through prayer God changes us, lets us recognize ourselves for who we are. It is in this way that God, who sees in secret, rewards us.

Then there is fasting. Maybe it’s a meal regularly skipped or certain kinds of food abstained from. There are other fasts as well. People give up alcohol, chocolate, television, book buying, or grumpiness as part of their Lenten observances. But all forms of fasting resemble abstinence from that which feeds us. This fasting is not done to make us lose weight, it is done to make us recognize our emptiness.

In fasting, we recognize our frailty, that our lives encompass not only the spiritual but also the biological and that the food we eat comes from the toil of others. We are based in our bodies. We cannot live on bread alone, that’s true, but without bread, we cannot live at all. The fleshly hunger we feel reminds us of the spiritual hunger that we need to feel to truly be alive. Yet often this spiritual hunger is sated, concealed due to the ingestion of one form of food or another that covers up our deepest need.

Hunger for God is our healthy state, yet often our hearts are stuffed with what cannot nourish us. An empty stomach will give us hope that our hearts may become empty enough to receive the God who is our only satisfying food. Through our fasting God changes us. We are reminded that we are constituted not by our achievements or even our failures, but by the need for God. Our hunger is not for bread alone, but for the holy.

The practices of Lent are good for us, but not if we see them as achievements. They are instead ways in which we become aware of our poverty and awake to the generosity of God. What we seek is not a successful Lent, a checklist of what we have done. What we seek instead is a holy Lent, an exposure to our emptiness, so that each of us can be a place of resurrection.