Ever since the bottom fell out of the sackcloth and ashes business, we’ve not known what to do about Lent. “What do I give up?” seems to be the primary question, an inversion of Jesus’ call for us to give. Lent isn’t a time to slim or to save money by not buying chocolate or going out to dine. Too easily our resolutions begin to look like holy variations on New Year’s resolutions, and we know how long they last!
Part of the problem is that we individualize Lent. We begin with me. Because we begin with me, the whole thing slides into another form of personal spirituality, perhaps somewhat ruined by our sly hints to others about just what it is we are sacrificing.
Sacrifice in Christianity, as with our Jewish ancestors, means the offering of life. Its culmination is Jesus’ offering for us on Calvary. The central way we commemorate this is in our offering of the Eucharist, a corporate offering “together” of the life, death, and resurrection of our Lord. In baptism, each of us is joined to those who “in Christ” offer the sacrifice, the life-offering of the Savior. We make this offering through Jesus for the world, in all its reality: for the homeless, refugees, those starving to death, those terrified by war and civil war, and even the rich living hopeless lives of denial and indulgence. In short, we get involved with the reality of life as it is.
Lent’s forty days prepare us for the Cross and the Resurrection, and no good intentions about giving up something gets us to that “Green Hill far away.” True, once our goal for Lent is established, fasting and abstinence is a way to keep us on track, but the goal comes first. The goal is simple but profound. It begins with our parish church. How does our community of the faithful intend to spend Lent together? What extra acts of worship or study will be added to the calendar? In what ways will the parish reach out to the world? We begin there. These extras on the calendar are not for the holy few. They determine how each of us may spend Lent, and guide us to choose individual acts of love that fit into that wider program.
At the same time, we remember that what we do doesn’t earn us God’s love. The question rather is how may I, and we, as a parish, become worthy of Christ’s death and passion? How do we deserve His conquering death for us and giving us eternal life?
On the one hand, we can’t earn and can never deserve God’s love for us in Christ. But we can open ourselves to the gift and seek to rid ourselves of those things that get in the way of God’s redeeming grace. We used to call these impediments the Seven Deadly Sins. Obviously gluttony was among them. Those old sins – do look them up or Google them – were neat ways of reminding us just how “self” gets in the way of service. Now, of course, you may feel you do pretty well in avoiding these failings and fallings. But just ask your partner, your children, your parents, or your best friends. With a little nudging they will come up with examples of bad temper, feeling sorry for yourself, being envious, or angry.
The point isn’t that we dwell on these things, but that we offer them daily to God in our devotions, certain that God forgives and strengthens us.
The gospel today reminds us that the smudge of ashes on our foreheads may either be a boast, or it may be a sign to us and to others that this Lent will be about more than giving up chocolate; it will be a time when God’s redeeming work transforms each of us and our parishes.
So may it be.