As we begin the Lenten pilgrimage, we brace ourselves for what we might learn and experience through faithful practices that call us back to God. Like matrimony, Lent is not to be entered into lightly! Some of us know this dusty pathway well; others may be embarking on this 40 day journey with hesitance, even fear. Any time we deliberately seek to draw near to God, we are welcomed—even if the light of the Holy presence reveals things we would rather not face.
Ash Wednesday texts invite us sound an alarm (Joel 2:1), and return to God “with fasting, with weeping, and with mourning” (v. 12). This might well be the most apt description of how we may approach this season of examination, self-denial, and confession. Fasting from destructive habits, whether they be dietary or simply complaining, is a step toward wholeness. Releasing anger and making room for joy is a worthy practice. Weeping and mourning rightly accompany genuine confession. When we acknowledge what we have done—and what we are really capable of in our shadow selves—we express tangible grief. In this, we return to self with new insight.
Psalm 51 is the great penitential psalm, full of anguish and longing to be delivered from sinful pathways. It properly notes that although we sin against others, underneath there is always the wounding of God in our destructive patterns. The Psalmist, traditionally thought to be David, confesses: “Against you . . . have I sinned, and done what is evil in your sight” (v. 4). Of course, the writer knows that sin against neighbor is harmful, but the true cost is the erosion of comfort in the presence of God.
Second Corinthians 5:50-6:10 urges the believer to be reconciled to God. Believers understand that there is an initial turning toward God, who through Christ has offered “a general pardon to the whole world” (Moltmann), yet we know that we must realize this reconciliation over and over if we would “become the righteousness of God” (v. 21). This text reminds us that the work of salvation in our lives is life-long and requires our labor with God that we not “accept the grace of God in vain” (6:1). A recurring theme in the Pauline texts, “labor in vain” is not the promise of God. As Paul recounts his own suffering in his apostolic calling, he encourages others to faithful, costly service.
The Gospel reading, Matthew 6:1-6, 16-21, offers counsel for the ways the Lenten practices are to be undertaken. We are not to practice our piety before others, but in secret. Whether fasting, praying, or giving alms, we are not to draw attention to ourselves. Now it is hard to do good for others without trumpeting it; we all want “credit” for our actions, but this is self-serving. The focus must be returning to God so that we might be renewed in our love. May we make this journey in hope.
Molly T. Marshall