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This season of Lent which we begin today developed gradually in the church. From what historians can tell, one of the earliest pre-Easter traditions was fasting for the 40 hours between Good Friday and Easter morning. Folks understood that Christ was in the tomb for 40 hours, so a period of fasting and remembering the sacrifice Christ made for us became part of the observance. Over time, the fasting was extended from 40 hours to all of Holy Week (only one small evening meal per day would be eaten). Then, as time went farther on, the practice of observing a period well beyond Holy Week developed, and by about the year 400, the church decided on a season of Lent lasting 40 days. The way of totaling the days was unusual - Sundays were not counted, since each Sunday was considered a mini-Easter celebration. Lent would begin on Ash Wednesday and end on Holy Saturday.
Why the ashes? That is an ancient custom signifying grief and mourning.(1) In the early church, Christians who had committed grave faults were obliged to do public penance. On Ash Wednesday the Bishop blessed the uncomfortable hairshirts which they were to wear during the forty days, and sprinkled them with ashes. Then, while the faithful recited psalms, the penitents were turned out of the holy place because of their sins, just as Adam and Eve had been turned out of the Garden of Eden because of their disobedience. They did not enter the church again until Maundy Thursday after performing some act (or acts) of penance and receiving absolution. As years went on, and as the truth of the scripture sank in which says, "ALL have sinned and come short of the glory of God,"(2) ALL began to come to receive ashes.
To understand the season of Lent as a time of introspection and spiritual discipline, we look back to the way new converts were initiated into the early church. Lent became the special time during which new Christians prepared for Baptism - instruction, sacrifice, austerity. As Easter Sunday approached, an all-night Vigil would be held, and just before the sun rose on Easter morning, all those who so desired and had properly prepared were baptized in a splendid service. It did not take long for all Christians to set this time apart to recommit themselves to the faith.
And so we arrive at this time of recommitment once again. What will Lent 1999 mean for you? Madeleine L'Engle may speak for many of us.(3) She writes of Lent as a "strange bleak season in the Church Year." Its own bleakness is only reenforced by the calendar - it appears when most of us are ready for spring, but at a time when spring has not yet come. Perhaps as an echo of the season's bleakness, Madeleine relates how she used to make lists as Lent approached, lists of "small things to give up." She no longer makes such lists, she says. "It occurred to me that if what I was giving up was something bad, it should be given up once and for all, and not just for forty days and forty nights." (The horror of global starvation, for example, makes a "moderate diet obligatory at all seasons of the year.") Today, she takes a more positive approach to Lenten discipline. She thinks more about what she should take on, rather than what she should give up. She thinks about new possibilities rather than about old habits. Good for her.
So saying, I am going to suggest something that may sound blasphemous in the context of our scripture lesson. Jesus warned about public piety: "Beware of practicing your piety before others..." I am going to humbly suggest that, this year, you be VERY public with your piety and, with Madeleine L'Engle, think about what you can take on rather than what you can give up. Take on the challenge of letting folks know that your relationship with the Lord and the church is important to you. Let folks know that you take the name DISCIPLE seriously. Let folks know you think it is important to them as well, and be intentional about sharing your faith.
Yes, Jesus wanted to guard against hypocrisy. But, the hypocrisy of 1999 in the mainline church is not people parading their piety to the public - it is exactly the opposite. The piety is there, but it is kept carefully private. TOO private. It has been noted that Christianity is always just one generation away from extinction. The faith must be shared. For Lent 1999, take something on rather than giving something up. Be public in your piety - not for recognition, but simply to declare your faith and let the world know whose side you are on. And I can promise, God will bless you for it.
1. See 2 Samuel 13:19, Esther 4:1, Job 42:6, Isaiah 58:5, Jeremiah 6:26, etc.
2. Romans 3:23
3. Madeleine L'Engle, The Irrational Season, quoted in Clergy Journal, 1990