“Beware of practicing your piety before others in order to be seen by them…” — Matthew 6
You know, I checked and Hallmark doesn't make greeting cards for Lent. “Hey! Happy Ash Wednesday! Don't forget you're gonna die!” OK, that's a bit grim. How about this one? “Merry Lent! No steak for you!” Or how about… “Stay away from that chocolate! Jesus is watching!” No, they just don't work, do they? Not only are there no greeting cards, there are so many questions: Do I have to give up chocolate? Am I supposed to fast? Of course, the most important question: When do you take the ashes off? I guess the simplest answers to those three are: You can, you may, and whenever you feel like it.
In the Gospel we read, Jesus just encourages us not to hold on to the things of this earth too tightly… to walk on this earth just a little more lightly. "Where your treasure is, that's where your heart will be." During Lent the most important question is: Where is my heart? I must admit, I am bound to this earth; my heart is very much here. My heart is bound up in people I love. My heart is bound up in places like my church. And my heart is bound up in things more than I would like to admit.
The Ash Wednesday greeting card Jesus sends simply says, "Get Real!" Remember what real treasure is. emember what real giving to others is. Remember what real relationship with God in prayer is. In the eighth century, where we find the earliest records of Ash Wednesday, penitents wore miserable rough sackcloth and ashes. Ash Wednesday is all about scratchiness, things that grate, or don't sit right. The dissonance in our lives unresolved until we find resolution in Christ.
So once a year, the Church gives us ashes. Ashes remind us we are mortal… all made of the same stuff. I've always been convinced the only people who have time to be selfish, and crabby, and mean are people who think they are immortal. If you're immortal you have plenty of time to fix all that. Who cares? You'll get to it later. But if we stop and admit we are mortal… strangers… only passing through… We only have time for kindness… We only have time for love.
Ultimately, Ash Wednesday and Lent are about trust. We are forced to stop and admit we are not all-powerful; we have to entrust our lives and those we love to God. We are forced to stop and admit we've been putting our treasure into things that are useless; we have to trust that there is something better waiting for us. We are not walking this path of Lent because we are afraid of an angry, patriarchal God who will punish us for our sins; no, we are walking this path of Lent because of something much more frightening. We are walking this path of Lent because God has revealed God's own true nature: God is a God of love, a God of forgiveness, a God of second chances. It's a frightening thing to be forgiven. A lot of people run away from it. We're walking this path of Lent to remind ourselves of who we really are, what's really important in life, and who we have to trust.
One last question: "Is it possible to give up religion for Lent?" The answer is, "Yes!" I think that is exactly what we are called to give up for Lent! Give up religion in all its false piousness, artificial community, and caring from a distance. We are called, not to more religion during Lent, but to faith — to a living, walking, breathing, serving, and yes, dying relationship with the God who calls us the beloved.