For those of you who have known me for some time, you know that Lent has always been my favorite liturgical season. Lent is a season marked by profound honesty about the brokenness and sinfulness of our lives, the confessing of the darkness of our souls, and the desperate searching for a way back to the unimaginable grace and love that God shows us undeservedly. Perhaps that description sounds a bit morbid and unappealing, but I find the raw truth of Lent to be refreshing in a world that brushes over and hides imperfection.
Despite my love of the sobering ritual of Lent though, the last two years Lent has felt like too much of a burden to bear. Being in a pandemic, wading through political divisions, and our country’s institutional racism being exposed felt like too much. We have been lonely, scared, angry, and, at times, lost. Both of the last two Lent’s have felt like the “Lentiest Lents we have ever Lented.” And as your clergy, and as a fellow disciple of Christ, I felt like asking us to waltz into the dance of Lent was just all too much.
But this year feels different. I would not say we are on the other side of this pandemic, and I would certainly not say we are back to “normal” – though I am not sure we will ever go back to the old normal. Instead, I rather feel like we are standing on a board, balanced on a fulcrum. We are not still climbing our way over this pandemic, and we are also not coming down from the apex of this pandemic. Instead, we are balancing a foot on each side of the board – steady, but using every muscle in our body to keep balance, wanting to breathe a sigh of relief being at the peak, but not yet able to relax on solid ground.
That is why I am so very grateful for our text from Matthew this Ash Wednesday. In years past, I always found this text rather sanctimonious. Here we are at a service where we will spread ashes on our forehead – a very public sign of our faith – listening to a text telling us not to be pious before others, not to give alms in a showy way, and not to pray so as to draw attention to our holiness. The contradiction between written word and physical act have never felt more at odds than on Ash Wednesday.
But I think I had Matthew’s gospel all wrong before this year. This text is not really about shaming self-righteous behavior. This text is about honesty, vulnerability, and humility. If we are showy with our piety, alms giving, prayer, and fasting, our discipleship becomes about dishonesty. Instead, Matthew is simply asking us to be real: real with others, real with ourselves, real with God.
That is the invitation this Lent. Not to take on some pious Biblical study (though we will offer that this year on Sunday mornings), not to brag about Lenten disciplines (though we will encourage you into a little light competition this year), and not to commit to something that is so unreachable that you quit within the first two weeks. Instead, this Lent is about honestly claiming the hurt of these last two years: of confessing our isolation and the ways that isolation has hurt (perhaps by finding one of the planned opportunities for connection), of facing the mental health strain this pandemic has created and seeking companions on the journey (whether in an upcoming support group or through a new Stephen Minister), of confessing that we are not fine (and coming to church to find those who are also not fine). Those Lenten disciplines will give us some stability on that wobbly board of pandemic life and may give us the assurance of the presence of God in the midst of life we need to come down the peak of this pandemic.
However you enter this Lent, whatever practices you take up or give up, however you engage in the offerings of formation this Lent, the Church invites you this year to be honest: be honest in the struggle, be honest in the failings, be honest in the hope. Your being real this year may just allow someone to experience the realness of Jesus in their own lives. And we could all use a little more Jesus this year. Amen.