Wednesday, 1 March 2017

Ash Wednesday - 'To starve thy sin, not bin'

Readings: Joel 2:12-18; Ps 50/51; 2 Corinthians 5:20-6:2; Matthew 6:1-6,16-18

Lent is best known as a time for fasting, when people ‘give up something’. The point of the fasting can, however, easily be lost to sight. One year I gave up chocolate but decided I was still entitled to my share of whatever chocolate was going. On Easter Sunday I had a drawer full of chocolate which sustained a week of self-indulgence in honour of the Lord’s resurrection. The letter of Lent may have been observed in some sense but there was no sign there of its spirit.

Abstaining from the good things of life — food, drink, entertainment — is not an end in itself. For the Christian the purpose of such abstinence is to help concentrate the mind and heart on more important things: faith, prayer, the needs of our neighbour, the place of Jesus Christ in our lives. I often met people preparing to run the London marathon. It requires dedicated training and the foregoing of some pleasures in order to be ready for the challenge. Fasting and other spiritual discipline is like the preparation of an athlete for a contest. We are trying to get in shape, to become fit as believers, to prepare ourselves spiritually for the celebration of Easter and for a renewal of Christian living.

Besides fasting there are two other classical Lenten works, prayer and alms-giving. These are more positive than fasting. They are concerned with another (God) or with others (the poor) and it may be that they are the more difficult of the Lenten practices.

Prayer is rarely an easy task. It is difficult to know whether it is something we do or something we allow to happen, something God does within us. I suppose it is both. Prayer is our attempt to remain in conscious contact with God, to open our minds and hearts to God’s wisdom and love. It also means receiving God’s gifts by bringing ourselves into God’s presence, and allowing God to work through us and to transform our lives, to bring about the changes we desire.

The line which forms the title of this homily is taken from Robert Herrick’s poem To Keep a True Lent. The poem is inspired by the great passage in Isaiah 58, 'Is this the sort of fast that pleases me, a truly penitential day for human beings? Is not this the sort of fast that pleases me, says the Lord, to break unjust fetters, to let the oppressed go free, to share your bread with the hungry, to shelter the homeless poor?'

True fasting, the prophet says, is not some kind of endurance test for the human body about which we can then boast, but a fasting from sin, from injustice, corruption, and deceit. To keep Lent truly means to live our religion truly and true religion for Isaiah is very practical. It means ‘taking care of widows and orphans in their need’. Recognising injustice, protesting about it and supporting its victims, is another traditional Lenten work.

These are the tasks of Lent then: fasting, prayer, alms-giving. The forty days we observe is in memory of the forty days Jesus spent in the wilderness after his baptism by John and before his public ministry. There he was tested. His integrity and sincerity were probed by God. Was he really serious about the mission to which he was called? Did he love the Father with all his heart, all his mind, all his strength? Was he, at heart, the servant for whom Israel longed, serious about serving God fully? The testing of Jesus in the wilderness was to see whether he loved the Father and was ready to serve him through and through.

We are tested in this way by life. Through temptation we learn about our weaknesses and blind spots, about the depth of our commitments, about the extent to which we are ready to serve God. During Lent it is as if we consciously invite this kind of testing, place ourselves in the firing line, as it were, as we hold our lives up to the scrutiny of God. We have the example of Jesus to guide us but we also have his company and the help of his grace as we seek to return to God with all our hearts.

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