‘Welcome deare feast of Lent’, starts George Herbert’s poem ‘Lent’, written in 1633. Now, Lent might not feel like a ‘dear feast’, to be welcomed, if you’ve chosen to give up some creature comfort. Liane Moriarty’s novel ‘The Husband’s Secret’ describes what might well be a familiar Lenten scenario in your household: ‘Why did she give up wine for Lent? Polly was more sensible. She had given up strawberry jam. Cecilia had never seen Polly show more than a passing interest in strawberry jam, although now, of course, she was always catching her standing at the open fridge, staring at it longingly. The power of denial.”
This year, it’s taken me a few weeks to decide what to give up for Lent. It’s not that I’ve lacked ideas; I came across a list of 101 ideas for keeping a holy Lent, covering everything from leaving Post-It notes on your family’s bedroom doors thanking them for something, to keeping a little notebook and writing down names of people to pray for during Lent or buying extra food at the shops to donate to foodbanks. As I read these ideas, it struck me that deciding how to keep Lent is in itself a process of coming to know ourselves better. What one for person represents a real sacrifice might be completely meaningless to another.
What might only be an empty gesture by one person could be a true offering of love by another. What matters ultimately is that during this season of penitence and self-denial, of seeking to overcome temptation and recognising our own self-centred human nature, is that in doing so we walk with Christ the way that all Christians are called to go – in the way of the cross. Or, to put it slightly differently, that we put a little bit of our sinful, selfish nature to death, a tiny sharing in Jesus’ being put to death for our sins.
So the question that emerges out of what can sometimes start off as what seems quite a trivial question: what do I give up for Lent? Can become, if we let it, a much deeper and more searching question: how far am I being invited to walk with Christ along the way of the cross? Or what in me that is self-centre and sinful is God asking me to put to death during this time? It might be that God is asking us to die to the part of us that is fearful and anxious, or the part of us that is ill-disciplined and greedy. As we walk the way of the cross with Jesus, if we allow so, these things die in us so that we can enter more fully into the fullness of life which we find in Christ.
In the Sermon on the Mount which we have hard read this evening, we hear a sharp call to die to the part of ourselves that is more concerned about our image and what others think of us than we are about what God sees in us. It’s easy to read this and to put ourselves in the position of Jesus’ disciples; oh no, we think, we are not the hypocrites. They are someone else. I’m not like that at all! The poet Maya Angelou says that whatever humans are capable of, we ourselves are potentially capable of – we can never say of any act, whether courageous and heroic or terrible ‘I could never do that.’ This is part of what it means to acknowledge our own human frailty as we do here today, to say that dust we are, and to dust we shall return.
So Jesus denounces the religious hypocrites whose pious acts are all about crafting an image – they do it in order to be seen, Jesus says. It’s not that they are doing anything wrong – in fact fasting, prayer and almsgiving are the three acts of Jewish piety – but their hearts are wrong, he says. Their focus is wrong.
Rather than focusing their prayer, fasting and almsgiving on God, their focus is on each other, and on themselves, on a weird religious competitiveness which has nothing to do with true worship. Now we might not disfigure our faces and pray ostentatiously on street corners, but we live in a society in which the temptation to craft an image for ourselves is very strong, to be seen and admired by others.
It’s one of the main objections to social networking sites like Facebook – that far from being a means of true encounter with others, it makes true encounter impossible by encouraging the crafting of a self-image which means that people never see the true ‘us’, the person we really are. And the worry is that these more superficial and false ways of relating to others by speaking and acting in such a way as to craft an image of the person we think will command the respect or grab the attention of others – these more superficial, false ways of relating will start to define how we are away from the computer screens and in everyday life. Our true selves will be hidden behind the false self we project to the world, ‘stranded in a hall of mirrors,’ as Adrian Plass puts it. Even if we are not Facebook types, the temptation to false, superficial relationships is no less real. How often have we answered the question ‘how are you?‘ with a bright and breezy ‘fine!’ when nothing could be further from the truth?
Ultimately, the real temptation is that this false, superficial way of relating will become how we relate to God in prayer. Don’t do that, Jesus invites his disciples: go, find a quiet place and your father will see you. And the you that your father sees is not the carefully crafted image of piety or success; it’s the real you, the true you, the you that, paradoxically, you will grow more and more deeply into, the longer you walk with Christ along the way of the cross. Your father will see you, just like Jesus saw Peter and saw in him the rock on whom God would build his church.
I think that this is what it means to be reconciled to God – to be our true selves before God, in humility and sober self-evaluation, to accept God's acceptance of us. It can be painful, to recognise our sins before God, but it is so important that we do, because in doing so, we are walking with Christ the way of the cross, putting to death in us all that is superficial and false so that depth and truth might transform us more fully into the likeness of Jesus. Lent is a dear feast indeed.
Joel’s vision pictures all peoples, he young and the old, the sick and the well, returning to God with weeping and mourning, but with deep faith in the very great goodness of the God to whom we, our true selves, return with all our hearts, with all that we are. Herbert’s poem finishes by hinting that it is when we walk some of the way of the cross with Christ, and see ourselves as we really are –the self that our heavenly Father sees when he looks at – it’s when we truly acknowledge our own poverty of soul that we are able to invite the poor soul within us to a wonderful feast. The poem goes on:
… It’s true, we cannot reach Christ’s fortieth day;
Yet to go part of that religious way,
Is better than to rest:
We cannot reach our Savior’s purity;
Yet are bid, Be holy ev’n as he.
In both let’s do our best.
Who goeth in the way which Christ hath gone,
Is much more sure to meet with him, than one
That travelleth by-ways:
Perhaps my God, though he be far before,
May turn, and take me by the hand, and more
May strengthen my decays.
Yet Lord instruct us to improve our fast
By starving sin and taking such repast
As may our faults control:
That ev’ry man may revel at his door,
Not in his parlor; banqueting the poor,
And among those his soul.