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.
As Riess writes in the introduction to her book, “this project originated as a lighthearted effort to read spiritual classics while attempting a year of faith-related disciplines like fasting, Sabbath keeping, chanting and the Jesus Prayer.” Each month, Riess endeavored to read a new spiritual classic such as writings from the Desert Fathers and the Desert Mothers (some of the first hermits of the Christian tradition) while incorporating a spiritual discipline such as fasting. (She even reveals how to eat Girl Scout Cookies while losing weight! Read for the skinny!)
However, by year’s end, Riess was reminded why Jesus had to die on the cross: she failed at keeping even her own rules and regulations for the project. From reciting the 12-word Jesus Prayer — “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me a sinner” — to keeping the Orthodox Jewish Sabbath (which included pre-shedding her toilet paper prior to her Sabbath observance), Riess concludes that sainthood is not a do-it-yourself project for the light of heart. Still, though she flunked sainthood, she gained valuable insights into herself that translated into her irreverent yet poignant book.
Riess, who blogs at Beliefnet.com and is the author or editor of nine other books, spoke to UrbanFaith about Flunking Sainthood.
URBAN FAITH: You mentioned that your year of DIY Holiness was your effort to “pop a little zing back” into your relationship with God or the “spiritual equivalent of greeting Jesus at the door wrapped in cellophane.” Did it do that for you?
JANA RIESS: Sometimes yes, and sometimes no. There were certain practices that were more resonant with me than others. For example, the Jesus Prayer definitely had that effect.
PRACTICE MAKES PERFECT? Jana Riess learned that the quest to become a mature Christian is more about the journey than the end result.
You write about how difficult it was for you to implement these new disciplines and read these Christian classics each month. Did you expect it to be that hard?
I think I was naïve going into the project. There were some practices that I expected to be difficult like fasting which is why I wanted to get that out of the way quickly, so I chose to fast in February, the shortest month of the year.
But there were other practices that I was expecting, frankly, to be much easier than they were … like gratitude. I was very surprised by how difficult it can be to sustain genuine gratitude. We talk a lot about being thankful and what that means, especially at this time of year with the holidays. With being thankful, one thing that I discovered is that it is difficult to sustain gratitude over the long term for things that are fleeting — even things like health. We’re always most grateful for our health when we’re just getting over an illness rather than if we have a long period where we’re feeling just great.
What was your favorite spiritual practice and why?
My favorite spiritual practice was the Jesus Prayer, and that’s the only one that I’m still doing every day, because its only 12 words long. It is something I’m able to incorporate into daily life very easily. It’s also not showy. Other people don’t even have to know if I’m saying the Jesus Prayer in my mind. Some of the practices that I tried were very obvious, like fasting or practicing financial generosity, because they involved other people. Because the Jesus Prayer has an emphasis on the fact that I’m a sinner, it reminded me that I’m not in the position to judge other people, which is something I need to be reminded of every day.
Although you earnestly attempt to implement these spiritual disciplines from month to month, your sense of humor makes it clear that you don’t take yourself too seriously. Do you think that Christians should inject humor into their spiritual lives, or is this just a part of your personality?
Both. I think that it’s essential for me to have humor in every aspect in my life. Humor is a wonderful way of helping us to not take ourselves too seriously and to deal with hard times. I think also many Christians could try to inject a little levity in their lives and in their relationships. We need more joy frankly, many of us.
There’s a wonderful book that just came out by Father James Martin. He’s the resident priest on The Colbert Report. He’s very funny. The book is called Between Heaven and Mirth, and it’s about humor and the Christian faith. One of the things that I took away from that book is that instead of trivializing deep religious faith, humor can actually enhance deep religious faith and make it stronger. He points out places in the Bible where humor is used intentionally and places in religious history where humor is important. It’s a good book.
Do you feel that many Christians are unaware of the spiritual classics, or even some of the spiritual practices that you mention in the book?
Yes, I think that’s true. It’s certainly true in my religious tradition. It is difficult to try to make some of these texts more relevant for today. Some of them may be off-putting. I mention in Chapter 3 that Brother Lawrence’s book rubbed me the wrong way in some instances, even though it was very spiritually enriching. Just the style of it is so different — the author referring to himself in the third person. It’s just a very different kind of book than what we would read today. So sometimes I think the spiritual classics get ignored simply because they are not written how we would write now.
Do you think that God requires that we implement all of these practices or read all of the spiritual classics?
No. And thank goodness! I think that are many different kinds of spiritual practices precisely because there are so many different kinds of people. And when we beat ourselves up for not being able to do all of them perfectly, we are not even honoring who we are in all of our diversity. Some people are more active. They are doers in the world. They are into social justice. Other people could think of nothing better than to sit for two hours a day in deep prayer. People are so different.
What advice do you have for other aspiring saints, other than reading your book?
Although I flunked sainthood and often felt that I was doing these practices far from perfectly, there was tremendous value in doing them. We don’t expect that we’re going to read a book about soccer and then suddenly be able to play it the very next day like Pelé. We practice if we’re in a sport or trying to learn to play an instrument, and the practice in itself is the journey rather than the destination. Not every athlete is going to make it into the Olympics, and not every Christian is going to be able to fit into contemplative prayer. But we learn from the doing.
Oldies but Goodies
If you’d like to follow Jana Riess’s lead and add some Christian classics to your reading list, here are a few that Jana recommends:
The Rule of Saint Benedict by Saint Benedict, the 6th-century Italian monk considered the father of Western monasticism; his “rule” were spiritual precepts distinguished by a unique spirit of balance, reasonableness, and moderation.
The Practice of the Presence of God by Brother Lawrence, a 17th-century French monk; known as “Lawrence of the Resurrection,” his primary message was focused on being aware of God’s presence in daily life.