As the Church enters the season of Lent, we enter deeply into the profound mystery of the suffering that God underwent on earth that culminated in his suffering and death at Calvary. As is fitting of such a sublime period of time, there’s a lot going on within the Church’s liturgy. It would be very tough if not impossible to cover all that is going on in the propers of the Ash Wednesday liturgy; I would like to talk about a few of the central themes we should be paying attention to.
The first point worth mentioning is that contrary to popular belief, Lent is not about fasting and penance. Important as these things are, they are but means to an end. St. John Chrysostom describes fasting as a medicine that, if we aren’t careful, “becomes frequently useless owing to the unskillfulness of him who employs it.” The purpose can instead be explained by two simple liturgical actions that serve as bookends to the Lenten season.
When the Ash Wednesday service begins, the priest reminds us that the ashes serve as a “symbol of our lowliness.” This signifies not only the start of Lent, but our own present condition. Even in the best of our days, we are still lowly creatures in need of a savior. Everything that happens during Lent is a reminder that we need a savior, and a guide to show us who that savior is.
If the ashes are where the journey begins, the journey can be said to have ended at the Easter vigil, where Christians renew their baptismal promises. With this renewal, we affirm the royal dignity of our baptism. When we are baptized, we are no longer meant to be lowly creatures, but subjects of Christ’s kingdom. As we journey through Lent, we will learn about this exalted nature, and how God’s grace can help us live it. When looked at through this prism, the season of Lent becomes far more than just a penitential season, but a season that chronicles our existence here on earth.
Another popular misconception of Lent is people treat it as a time to “start anew” their failures from before. If we aren’t good at Lent this year, don’t worry, there’s always next Lent! There’s a real temptation to treat Lent as a crash diet, where we go to great extremes in the pursuit of holiness, and once we think we obtain it, we more or less go back to our old ways, and eventually we repeat the cycle. The prayers of the Mass are meant to jar us out of this mentality. In a prayer chanted while ashes are distributed, we hear:
Let us amend for the better in those things in which we have sinned through ignorance: lest suddenly overtaken by the day of death, we seek space for penance, and are not able to find it.
Christianity is not a routine we fall into, it is an experience meant to transform every aspect of our life, and that transformation is continual. The Apostle Paul tells us “now is the day of salvation”, and this prayer helps to reinforce that. We aren’t guaranteed another Lent. The spiritual life isn’t a five year plan with benchmarks and milestones. The spiritual life is all about giving ourselves over to Christ permanently, and allowing Him to direct us in our steps for as long as we are on this earth, no matter the results. For some this involves a few small changes, and for others, something far more extensive. Whether large or small, we are all called to a radical and permanent change of heart this Lent.
If there is one message in the prayers of Ash Wednesday, it is the message of a radical and permanent renewal of the heart being the point of Lent. In the epistle the Prophet Joel condemns false fasting by exhorting the people to rend their hearts, not their garments. Don’t make your Lent all about the external things you give up. As John Chrysostom reminds us:
Are you fasting? Show me your fast with your works. Which works? If you see someone who is poor, show him mercy. If you see an enemy, reconcile with him. If you see a friend who is becoming successful, do not be jealous of him! If you see a beautiful woman on the street, pass her by.
In other words, not only should the mouth fast, but the eyes and the legs and the arms and all the other parts of the body should fast as well. Let the hands fast, remaining clean from stealing and greediness. Let the legs fast, avoiding roads which lead to sinful sights. Let the eyes fast by not fixing themselves on beautiful faces and by not observing the beauty of others. You are not eating meat, are you? You should not eat debauchery with your eyes as well. Let your hearing also fast. The fast of hearing is not to accept bad talk against others and sly defamations.
While external things should never define our fast, we also cannot overlook the role they play in helping our fast. If the true fast is that of renewing our souls, that renewal happens through the things we do. This point is driven home during the Preface of Lent:
It is truly meet and just, right and for our salvation, that we should at all times, and in all places, give thanks unto Thee, O holy Lord, Father almighty, everlasting God; Who by this bodily fast, dost curb our vices, dost lift up our minds and bestow on us strength and rewards; through Christ our Lord.
I think in the end, this is why Christ exhorts us to be joyful with our fasting in the Gospel. He’s not telling us to anoint our heads with oil and appear glad so as to fool the world. He wants us to be joyful because even if fasting is at times uncomfortable, the benefits it produces are something to be glad about. Who wouldn’t want vices curbed, minds enlightened and our entire being strengthened? Far too often we approach Lent with that negative sense. This Lent, how about we approach it with the joy that comes as a result of fasting?