The First Day of Lent


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Commonly Called Ash Wednesday 

Almighty and everlasting God, who hatest nothing that thou hast made…
For the Epistle
Joel 2:12-17
Matthew 6:16-21

The noun “fast” comes from the verb “to hold fast”. On Ash Wednesday we are beginning forty days’ preparation for Easter but what kind of a haul should it be? Is fasting an anachronism from a bygone age when, even without Lent, it would have been inevitable from after Christmas until spring in Northern Europe before the advent of agricultural surpluses and the reliable means of storing them; or is fasting a contemporary imperative? A good starting point is to imagine what a genuine fast might be like today: a staple diet of grain based products and water with occasional vegetables and fish; no television, radio or other entertainments; and no consumerism. We would be obliged to give all that we saved to the poor and, remembering Matthew, we would have to remain cheerful throughout. A far cry from giving up chocolate!

Perhaps fasting was inevitable until the 16th Century but the purpose behind it is to concentrate the mind on higher things and repent material excess, quite different from reversing material excess by dieting for the good of our health and the enhancement of our appearance.

Over time the terms “repent” and “penance” have become rather mixed up. The first is a “turning again” to God, mentioned in the Collect, the second is one means of showing a change of heart or, rather, of enacting the change without, to cite Matthew, showing it to others. It is easy to see in Joel how the two ideas have fused so that Lent is a time of turning back to God and doing so in a concrete way through penitence: “Turn ye even to me,… with all your heart, and with fasting”. Latterly there has been an attempt by the Church to encourage us to do something positive in Lent to show our change of heart rather than simply concentrating on self denial but it is the latter which is still firm in the popular and even the Christian imagination.

Joel asks us to “rend our hearts”. In a phrase well beloved of politicians (particularly those in charge of finance), if it isn’t hurting it isn’t working and we might say that of our Lenten observance. If it does not wrench us out of our usual pattern of life then we are not working hard enough. Joel calls for an impressive package (or is it raft?) of special measures to signify a change of heart to avert the ultimate catastrophe of God abandoning his chosen people. In our case the special occasion is not self denial for its own sake nor even to give us latitude to be generous to others but to prepare for the Easter solemnities. Fasting is an honourable and joyful offering, says Matthew who rather spoils his message by invoking the actuarial argument by contrasting the corruptibility and vulnerability of earthly compared with heavenly goods. Put crudely, this argument justifies good behaviour on the ground that it somehow accumulates salvific merit, a position which was particularly unpopular at the time of the Reformation one of whose causes was the sale of indulgences, Papal promises of eternal life in exchange for a financial contribution to a ‘good cause’. Joel, like many of his predecessor prophets, is deeply suspicious, on God’s behalf, of extravagant ritual observance in the place of a genuine penitence where the heart, rather than the garments, was truly rent.

If we genuinely look into our hearts and examine what we have said and done we might come face to face with a person we do not like very much and there is a strand of self loathing in penitence which can easily be taken too far, turning a sober self assessment into a particularly pernicious form of self indulgence where people cannot see themselves but only enjoy a caricature. Most of us are neglectful, lazy and passive rather than actively wicked, not deliberately walking away from God or neighbour and it is therefore helpful to think of penitence in an active as well as in a self denying mode, not because this is a modern attempt to take the pain out of penitence but because we live such opulent lives that doing something will probably be more taxing than giving up something.

Behind our self analysis there lies one aspect of our existence which the Collect draws out in its phrase: “... God, who hatest nothing that thou hast made”. Ultimately, we exist so that we can freely love God who is love. Penitence is the act of recognising the wrong choices we have made and penance might or might not be a good method of ensuring our better judgment. The problem with Penance, as Matthew and Joel point out, is that it can be perversely addictive at one level and, at another, it can feel like a process of exact retribution. Getting ready by reaching outwards seems like a much more wholesome approach to Easter.

There has to be some sensible place between the medieval enforced fast and the contemporary fashion for giving up cheese or alcohol in pursuit of a slimmer waist line; and there must be some balance between genuine self denial and the ability to reach outward to others. What matters is that we are able to engineer a change of heart which takes us from a passive, self satisfied spiritual state into a deliberative preparation for the commemoration of the passion, death and Resurrection of Our Lord Jesus.

Starting Points for Sermons or Discussions:

  1. Is the fusion of penitence and penance helpful?
  2. What are the pros and cons of giving things up and taking things up?
  3. If you could only give up or take up one thing, what would be the most difficult?
  4. How do you account for the rather strange designation “Commonly called Ash Wednesday”?
  5. Design a special prayer regime for Lent.

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