We mark today the start of Lent with a concrete / bodily sign (as we often do in the church). Today, the sign of the ashes on our foreheads, a sign associated with mourning. The ashes do not hold a special / magical power, but they mark the opening of this period of Lent – a time were we are invited (as we will read in a few minutes) to “self-examination and repentance, prayer, fasting, self-denial, reading and meditating God’s holy Word”.
It’s often misunderstood. I like to say that Lent can give us “Spiritual anxiety”. This time of the year when we are supposed to be super holy, to give up a lot of bad habits and take on many religious practices…We often think of Lent as a time of privation / when we are supposed to do many efforts. Yet I think that if we really listen to the Scriptures today, we will realize that it’s not what it is about. Actually, Isaiah, and after him Jesus, seem to be tired and even a bit angry w/ people acting super religious. Because, they say, this is not what God expects from us.
So what does God expect from us? Well, as I was meditating those texts I thought that it is probably less about doing a lot of religious activities than about putting our whole heart in what we do / the efforts we make.
The Gospel today is often read as a denunciation of hypocrisy, and it’s right, one of the things Jesus hated the most in the world was hypocrisy. But I also think Jesus didn’t spend a lot of time making moral judgments with lists of do’s and don’ts. Indeed, Jesus does not want us to put on a show when we practice our religion. But it’s probably not so much because b/c God “does not like hypocrites” but b/c Jesus wants us to be authentic and invested. The way we give alms, fast, pray, these are the examples Jesus uses but more deeply, I think that what he is trying to say is that we cannot find God if we remain superficial, if we don’t have deep motives to do what we do, and just follow what others expect us to do – as did the Pharisees with those religious practices – sometimes b/c they were hypocrites / but sometimes maybe just b/c they didn’t know better, they didn’t look for more to religion than external practices.
And I think at some level, we can all identify with them. At some point, we can all end up doing things w/o really knowing why we are doing them, not only in religion but also in every day life. We spend a lot of time trying to be praised by others or maybe just trying to please them. We want them to see us, notice us so they will accept us and make us feel loved and important. We lose the sense of who we are deep down, we believe we are what others think of us.
But listening to the Gospel, we may want to think about Lent as a process where we can reconnect to our souls / to find what’s deep inside of us. Instead of acting all on the outside, Jesus asks us to do things “in secret”. He does not asks us to hide! He talks about being authentic. Instead of pretending to be something else / or just trying to follow w/o understanding what we are doing, Jesus asks us to open a space within ourselves so we can be intimate with God / close to God’s heart. Paradoxically, those who are hiding may be those who put on a show as they practice their piety, they put on a show for others, maybe even for God, maybe even for themselves – They’re like: “We are these people who have it all together and live perfect lives…”
In the Gospel today, Jesus asks us to not act like hypocrites, but more deeply he wants to protect us from exhausting ourselves in doing things (including religion) trying to find validation in the way people look at us. Trying to be accepted, to fit in, to be rewarded – waiting for people to praise us / return our love / the interest we have in them. Interestingly, Fat Tuesday is often celebrated in the world by wearing masks. Does it mean that we need to take off our masks on Ash Wednesday? The symbol we have on our foreheads make me want to believe so. I read an article about a guy who said he happened to visit a church on Ash Wednesday, and when he saw the priest putting ashes on the parishioners’ foreheads he thought to himself: Well, this is a place where we say the truth!
On Ash Wednesday, we take off the masks to remember that we are dust. It does not mean we are garbage. The whole earth is dust – start dust / all life around us comes from the explosion of a big star. It’s wonderful and precious and fragile in the same time. In our world, we need more than ever to remember that our earth, each living creature and each one of us is wonderful and precious and fragile at the same time – each one of us is a miracle. How would we live if we had this inner conviction? How would we treat each other? And how would we relate to God?
Lent is not about beating ourselves up. Isaiah and after him Jesus make it clear that God does not want us to beat ourselves up. Lent is an invitation to stop putting on a show / running from who we are / it’s an invitation to be more authentic, more compassionate, more attentive. Unfortunately, Isaiah is often read as a way to say: “We should do less religious activities and more social justice”. But I think there can be as much misunderstood “good deeds” as false piety. In piety as in outreach and social justice, what God expects from us is to be real, to act out of our own heart, to act out of love. Isaiah does not ask us to be “good people”, he asks us to be loving and compassionate: “Share your bread, welcome those in need into your house. Enjoy fellowship, take care of one another”.
So maybe during this Lent, instead of trying to do to much, maybe we could think of just one or two things that connect us to ourselves, to others and to God and to do them with all our hearts, to be really in them. And maybe even: to savor them, to savor God in them.
I invite this Lent to think about joy – In the Gospel today, Jesus speaks about those things that steal from us our treasure, and trying to live up to people’s expectations is certainly something that robs us of the treasure of our joy. We have joy when we have pleasure in doing the things we do (This what play is all about / work is the opposite). If we do the things we do only for obtaining something else (a salary, a reward, consideration), joy is always postponed. Our relationship with God and our neighbor should be about enjoying each other presence / real intimacy / not playing a part for one another. Makes us feel vulnerable = dust. Yet if you can be truly yourself and discover in the process that you are loved for yourself, what biggest joy could there be? From this starting point, we can accept who we are and do all the things we’re supposed to do in repentance: ask for forgiveness, mend, change our behavior, grow and move on. Ashes: sign of mourning only to ask to be reborn into our authentic, true and eternal selves. Because during Lent, we mustn’t forget that where we’re headed is Resurrection. Amen.