There are two traditional Scripture readings associated with Ash Wednesday. The Gospel lesson is Matthew 6:1-6, 16-21 in which Jesus gives His disciples instructions on how to pray, fast, and give alms to the poor – the traditional devotional practices associated with the season of Lent. This is how the passage reads in the New Revised Standard Version
“Beware of practicing your piety before others in order to be seen by them; for then you have no reward from your Father in heaven.
2 “So whenever you give alms, do not sound a trumpet before you, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and in the streets, so that they may be praised by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward. 3 But when you give alms, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, 4 so that your alms may be done in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you.
5 “And whenever you pray, do not be like the hypocrites; for they love to stand and pray in the synagogues and at the street corners, so that they may be seen by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward. 6 But whenever you pray, go into your room and shut the door and pray to your Father who is in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you.
16“And whenever you fast, do not look dismal, like the hypocrites, for they disfigure their faces so as to show others that they are fasting. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward. 17 But when you fast, put oil on your head and wash your face, 18 so that your fasting may be seen not by others but by your Father who is in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you.
19 “Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust consume and where thieves break in and steal; 20 but store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust consumes and where thieves do not break in and steal. 21 For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.
This last verse “for where your treasure is there your heart will be also” serves as an effective summary of Jesus’ overall point here. There is no (and there can be no) depth, integrity, or substance to our faith practice if our hearts aren’t in the right place. Our praying, fasting, and giving should be genuine in both action and intent. Nothing should be done for applause or for the sake of decorum. We must approach God, ourselves, and others with an honest desire to know and be known, to give and receive. Pretense counts for nothing. Following Jesus is about learning to value proper relationships rather than stage proper performances: loving God with our whole selves and loving our neighbors as ourselves. If we try to fake it, we cannot possibly hope to make it to where God is calling us to go. Not even close.
The second reading is from the Hebrew prophet Joel, and has a very different tone.
Blow the trumpet in Zion;
sound the alarm on my holy mountain!
Let all the inhabitants of the land tremble,
for the day of the Lord is coming, it is near—
2 a day of darkness and gloom,
a day of clouds and thick darkness!
Like blackness spread upon the mountains
a great and powerful army comes;
their like has never been from of old,
nor will be again after them
in ages to come.
12 Yet even now, says the Lord,
return to me with all your heart,
with fasting, with weeping, and with mourning;
13 rend your hearts and not your clothing.
Return to the Lord, your God,
for he is gracious and merciful,
slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love,
and relents from punishing.
14 Who knows whether he will not turn and relent,
and leave a blessing behind him,
a grain offering and a drink offering
for the Lord, your God?
15 Blow the trumpet in Zion;
sanctify a fast;
call a solemn assembly;
16 gather the people.
Sanctify the congregation;
assemble the aged;
gather the children,
even infants at the breast.
Let the bridegroom leave his room,
and the bride her canopy.
17 Between the vestibule and the altar
let the priests, the ministers of the Lord, weep.
Let them say, “Spare your people, O Lord,
and do not make your heritage a mockery,
a byword among the nations.
Why should it be said among the peoples,
‘Where is their God?’”
Joel’s importance for the people of Jesus cannot be understated. Peter quotes from this same chapter of Joel on the day of Pentecost to help onlookers understand what has taken place. God has poured out God’s Spirit upon all flesh. So, Joel’s words bookend the three consecutive holy seasons that the church observes in the spring of each year: Lent, Easter, and Pentecost. We start with Joel, and we end with Joel.
The presence of Joel here on Ash Wednesday is significant not only because it grounds this particularly Christian holy season in the longer, bigger story of God’s history with Israel, but also because Joel’s words are addressed to God’s people collectively. When we read Joel alongside Matthew we cannot approach Lent strictly as an individual spiritual endeavor. Our personal spiritual practices, confessions, and repentance matters – absolutely. But the sins we have to confront and account for are bigger than our individual actions, attitudes, and shortcomings. We have inherited – and in ways big and small, active and passive, we help to perpetuate – unjust and ungodly social structures and economic systems. As Reinhold Niebuhr recognized nearly a century ago, societies (including American society) are immoral in ways that the individuals who comprise them are not. Yet, because we participate in this immoral society, none of us can claim innocence, no matter how fair, ethical, or faithful we as individuals strive to be. We all bear responsibility. Thus, if Lent is to have any significant transformational impact that leads us toward more loving, just, and moral living under the lordship of Christ, this holy season of repentance must lead us to confront the immorality of the society of which we are apart as well as the missteps and longings of our own, personal, individual faith journeys.
Black History Month, which has just concluded here in America and in Canada, is an excellent example of the need for this confluence. For one month out of the year we celebrate the contributions of Black Americans to the artistic, intellectual, and cultural vibrancy of our nation. We produce, air, and watch excellent documentaries on the African American experience. We spotlight the work of African American authors. We pay tribute to the legacies of Black luminaries such as Frederick Douglass, George Washington Carver, W.E.B DuBois, and Martin Luther King, Jr. We pat ourselves on the back for doing so. Then we stop.
“American society at large has erected a white nationalist veil around Black history…throwing the curtain wide open would expose too many unpleasant realities, undermine our civic sense of piety, and threaten our mythic understanding of who we are as one nation under God.”
We stop because American society at large has erected a white nationalist veil around Black history, even if relatively few of us would self-identify as white nationalists. It’s a veil we don’t want pulled back too far much less pulled down. We’re okay with a peek behind the veil once a year; but throwing the curtain wide open would expose too many unpleasant realities, undermine our civic sense of piety, and threaten our mythic understanding of who we are as one nation under God. Preserving and reinforcing this veil is the motivation behind such campaigns as the recently manufactured “Critical Race Theory” crisis. Certain powers-that-be are nervous about holes that recent social movements such as #BlackLivesMatter and a slew of scholarly and popular books on white privilege and white supremacy by Isabel Wilkerson, Robert Jones, Ibram X Kendi, Jamar Tisby, and others have worn through that veil. The powers-that-be want the veil repaired and access to what it conceals strictly monitored and controlled.
The trouble is Jesus won’t suffer this kind of ideological, patriotic grandstanding any more than He indulged flamboyant praying on street corners or the sanctimonious use of fasting makeup. Such self-generated delusions hinder us from becoming the people God wants us to be or becoming the nation we claim to be. How can we, with any sincerity, sing that we are the land of the free and the home of the brave while we shrink from facing the ugly truth of America’s violent racial history? How can we, with any integrity, pledge liberty and justice for all while denying slavery’s many living legacies? Systemic bias, police violence, voter suppression, mass incarceration, and prolific wealth disparity are but a few. For that matter, how can the American church, with any credibility, preach a gospel that proclaims sight to the blind, release to the captives, and good news to the poor while we in the church uncritically embrace systems and institutions that perpetuate captivity and poverty?
“how can the American church, with any credibility, preach a gospel that proclaims sight to the blind, release to the captives, and good news to the poor while we in the church uncritically embrace systems and institutions that perpetuate captivity and poverty?”
It is to the American church’s continuing discredit that more self-professed American Christians aren’t taking the lead in naming and redressing the injustices of our nation. Many American Christians are, in fact, supporting efforts to patch up the holes and reinforce the fabric of the veil intended to obscure them. Which only serves to demonstrate why the societal dimension of Lent is so very important alongside our personal, individual pilgrimages.
Our Ash Wednesday passage from Joel ends with the question, “Why should it be said among the peoples, where is your God?” Israel needs to get its act together and come together to repent and move in a different, more holy direction because Israel’s God is not visible in Israel’s midst. Likewise, our failure to confront – even acknowledge – the darkness that envelopes our national history and that continues to shroud our present mitigates our witness to the God we profess to worship. We wring our hands about the fact that less than 50% of American adults now belong to a church. We should be taking a long hard look in the mirror and facing up to the fact that God, that Jesus isn’t visible in most of our churches because we talk in God-speak but value and model the very shallow, performative piety Jesus warns against in Matthew 6. Meanwhile, all manner of life-and-death injustice goes unmentioned and largely unquestioned.
Well, it just so happens that Lent is all about God’s people getting their act together in anticipation of God’s live-giving, death-defeating work on Easter Sunday.
Life is what God desires for us and life abundant is what Jesus offers us. But to get there – to really get there – we have to discard our pretense and face up to certain realities – realities that we all have a hand in creating and continuing – realities that prevent us and others from fully receiving and enjoying this life that God has granted us. Fair warming: If we set off down this path, we will encounter truths we’d rather not contend with. There will be implications for our national myths and our own personal narratives. It’s a daunting proposition to be sure; but Jesus promises us the truth will set us free, and facing the truth is necessary for our release as captives – individually and collectively. And the One who invites us on this Lenten journey is a God of grace and mercy who not only calls us but accompanies us.
Dire as Joel’s forecast for Israel is, it also laced with hope. The prophet proclaims hope in the midst of calamity because God is a God slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love. And love is what God calls us to first and foremost. To love God and love neighbor: That is our both our highest and our most basic calling as the people of Jesus. The Apostle Paul sums it up for us this way:
If I speak in the tongues of mortals and of angels, but do not have love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal. 2 And if I have prophetic powers, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing. 3 If I give away all my possessions, and if I hand over my body so that I may boast, but do not have love, I gain nothing
In other words, if we don’t love God and love neighbor, then all our prayer, fasting, almsgiving, prophesying, sacrificing – none of that stuff really matters during Lent or any other season of the year. Because when all is said and done, it’s just noise. And the last thing any of us needs in our lives right now – in our media-saturated, war-torn, poverty-stricken world – is more noise. What we need is clarity.
“God sees us oh so clearly, and yet God still chooses to love us, walk with us, even die for us. Because that’s where God’s heart is. That’s where God wants our hearts to be, too.”
Blessedly, mercifully, clarity is what Lent offers us – if we take it seriously, if we enter into it on a communal level as well as personal level. If we receive it honestly and not performatively, Lent offers us a way through all the noise. And the disciplines of Lent will teach us to see God, ourselves, our neighbors, and our world truthfully – as we are in all our light and shadow, faith and doubt, courage and cowardice, generosity and complicity – the way God sees us and yet, guided by the Holy Spirit, to still choose love, as God chooses love. God sees us oh so clearly, and yet God still chooses to love us, walk with us, even die for us. Because that’s where God’s heart is. That’s where God wants our hearts to be, too.
So may we receive Jesus’ invitation to Lent, to set aside our pretense, to resist the urge to try to fake it until we make it, and set out with Jesus and with each other on the way of the cross, the way of love to tune our hearts with God’s, so that we might become the people God calls us to be and through our living and loving others can point to us and say, “There! There is our God, alive and well!” no matter how deep the darkness or how steep the challenges.