The fruits of a holy lent

25 February 2009
Ash Wednesday
Matthew 6:1-6, 16-21

Beware of practicing your piety in public.

Give alms in secret.

When you pray, don’t be like the hypocrites, go into your room and shut the door.

These instructions make me think of the old church camp song: “They’ll know we are Christians by our love.” No one ever wrote a song about how “they’ll know we are Christians by the smudges of ash on our foreheads.” It just doesn’t quite work.

It’s true. Those smudges – those visible signs of our commitment to enter a holy Lent – are not really what today is about. It’s not about having a public display of your faith in the drug store or at the office. Instead, today is about entering that season of silence. It’s about going into the quiet places of your heart and shutting the door. It’s about being left alone with your demons and your gods and sorting through them all until you distill the true God: the God of birth and hope, the God of life and light.

Lent is a season of temptation, and today we mark its beginning. The temptations of Lent come in many forms. Of course there is the temptation of breaking our Lenten disciplines. But the chocolate or caffeine or wine that most of us focus on during this season are just symbols. The real temptation that we are called to face is in that quiet place to which we are called – the place where we encounter our demons and our gods. The place where we ponder those words, “remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.”

It’s not an easy thing to think about. Our lives are passing, but what are those things that endure?

It can be tempting to decide that the questions are too deep, or to fear that they strike a little too close to home. It can be tempting to just decide not to go there – to not “keep a holy Lent” – out of a fear of where that may take us.

That is a rational fear. When we find ourselves in our innermost places of silence and stillness another temptation emerges. It can be tempting to stay there – to shut our eyes and to refuse to see the light calling us out into new and deeper hope for resurrection and enduring life.

I’d like to play a recording of a song for you. It’s a setting of one of Shakespeare’s sonnets – Sonnet 29 – but I think it also has something of a message for us today as we approach this season of temptation and introspection.

Sonnet 29

When in disgrace with fortune and men’s eyes
I all alone beweep my outcast state,
And trouble deaf heav’n with my bootless cries,
And look upon myself, and curse my fate,
Wishing me like to one more rich in hope,
Featured like him, like him with friends possessed,
Desiring this man’s art, and that man’s scope,
With what I most enjoy contended least;
Yet in these thoughts myself almost despising,
Haply I think on thee, and then my state,
Like to the lark at break of day arising
From sullen earth, sings hymns at heaven’s gate.
For thy sweet love remembered such wealth brings
That then I scorn to change my state with kings.

I hear that as one person's account of his journey to that quiet, inner place.

When we go to those places of truest quiet, with only our demons and our gods as company, we have the chance to see ourselves as only we can. We may fear what we find – deficiencies, loneliness, failings of every sort. “Yet in these thoughts [ourselves] almost despising,” our thoughts turn beyond ourselves. In the memory and recognition of that “sweet love” – the sweet love that was made known to us in the suffering and sacrifice of Good Friday and in the love sweeter, still, as it was shown to us on Easter – in that memory there is hope. Hope so great that in our clinging to it, all other fortunes fall short.

These are the fruits of a “holy Lent.”

They are not the fruits of worldly passions or recognitions.

But they are about facing the temptation – about taking the risk to see ourselves – and emerging with sweeter love and deeper hope than we could have previously imagined.

They are about distilling the one true God from the cloud of gods and demons that leave us otherwise distorted.

You are invited.