Today is Ash Wednesday, the day which marks the beginning of Lent for many in the Christian tradition. Thereafter, for 40-plus days, many will observe a period of prayer, almsgiving, and fasting from things ranging from certain types of food and television to shopping and social media. The fasting portion of Lent is what most people focus on and what people abstain from usually depends on what it is they believe is hindering their relationship with God. Most aren’t afraid to share what they will abstain from for Lent, but Lenten waters are sometimes muddied by that sharing. It is as if Lent is the new black and it is fashionable to rattle off the list of things you are giving up in order to gain the esteem of your colleagues–Christian or not. Some critics of this approach have compared it to a “benchmark for righteousness.” Stories have been published ad nauseum about the so-called “Lent trap” and I’ve noticed that, increasingly, my social media news feed is filling up with people throwing symbolic punches by way of status updates aimed at those who decide to share what it is they are fasting from. Yet no one is free from the Lent trap, not the person who makes a list and shouts it twice or the person who chin checks the person who makes the list. In both cases, the people are being boastful either about what they are giving up or the fact that they have reached a pious peak that is above stooping to the perceived valleys of talking about what they will give up.
All of this conversation must be muted for the sake of upholding the sanctity and penitent nature of this upcoming season. A season where we are all faced with the same reminder, “Remember that thou art dust, and to dust thou shalt return”(Genesis 3:19). And we are all told, “Repent, and believe the Gospel” (Mark 1:15). Whether you are one who proudly proclaims what you have given up for Lent or one who proclaims how Lent should be done in light of your revelation about the vanity of proclaiming what you will give up, the Ash Wednesday lectionary text teaches us all a lesson about the performance of piety.
Matthew 6:1-4 says,
“Beware of practicing your piety before others in order to be seen by them; for then you have no reward from your Father in heaven. “So whenever you give alms do not sound a trumpet before you, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and in the streets, so that they may be praised by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward. But when you give alms do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, so that your alms may be done in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you.”
Here Jesus is contrasting the piety of the hypocrites to the piety rewarded by the Father in heaven. This piety is inward and requires the individual to do pious acts in private, which was not something the Pharisees were doing at the time. On the topic of almsgiving, Jesus warned his followers that they weren’t to alert the masses to giving alms by way of trumpet blowing, they were to give their alms in secret and their heavenly Father, who sees in secret, will reward them. In the same way, we are called to such a quietness in service so as not to draw attention to ourselves but to draw attention to God. This scripture also introduces us to two phrases that will repeat two more times throughout Ash Wednesday’s text, “Truly I tell you, they have received their reward.” And “…your Father who sees in secret will reward you.”
Jesus continues by talking about prayer. Of this he says,
“And whenever you pray, do not be like the hypocrites; for they love to stand and pray in the synagogues and at the street corners, so that they may be seen by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward. But whenever you pray, go into your room and shut the door and pray to your Father who is in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you” (Matthew 6:5-6, NRSV).
Again Jesus warns of doing pious acts in the public eye and reminds followers that their Father “who is in secret and sees in secret will reward” them. In the case of prayer, followers are not to stand in the public places where they can be seen nor should they “heap up empty phrases as Gentiles do; for they think that they will be heard because of their many words.” Instead he tells them to pray the prayer that we have come to know as the Lord’s Prayer. In this way there is no room for bloviating, only God-oriented thanksgiving and petition. This concern about prayer turns the act from outward posturing to inward connection.
Matthew 6:16-18, is the linchpin of the Lenten season, in it Jesus says,
“And whenever you fast, do not look dismal, like the hypocrites, for they disfigure their faces so as to show others that they are fasting. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward. But when you fast, put oil on your head and wash your face, so that your fasting may not be seen by others but by your Father who is in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you” (Matthew 6:16-18, NRSV).
At once this scripture appears to contradict the spirit of the Lenten season. It seems to go against remembering mortality, humility, and penitence in exchange for putting on a happy face. But it isn’t a contradiction. Actually, the text focuses on three of the several disciplines of Lent; almsgiving, prayer, and fasting. In this particular text, Jesus is encouraging followers to let none be the wiser when they are fasting. By telling his followers not to look dismal or disfigure their faces he is telling them not to draw attention to themselves. They are supposed to keep the same countenance as if they weren’t fasting and let the act be about what is going on inside of them, not what they display on the outside. We too can learn from this teaching during this season, the lesson being that what we choose to fast from or how we choose to observe Lent in general is not something we proclaim to the masses lest we miss the point.
In Psalm 51, David gives us further direction about our posture during this season when he says, “You desire truth in the inward being; therefore teach me wisdom in my secret heart.” Again we are faced with the secret nature of our search for God which is connected to our inward being and caring for our inward selves. Our participation in Lent is for our relationship with God “the Father who is in secret and who sees in secret.” What we choose to do is between God and us and need not be shared. Granted, we can find accountability when we share what we are abstaining from with a close circle of friends, but what we choose to do in this season is really no one’s business but our own and God’s.
By keeping our lists secret or keeping our judgement secret from those who announce their lists we open ourselves all the more to what God wants to do in our lives during this season. In doing this we open ourselves to God’s reward and that is the point of it all.
Do you participate in Lent? What does this period of reflection and sacrifice mean to you? Share your thoughts below.