Adaptation from Lent by Esau McCaulley
Adapted from Chapter 1, “Facing Death and Finding Hope”
Traditionally Ash Wednesday has included a reading from Joel. To ward off God’s judgment (described in Joel 2:1-2), the prophet calls on the people to fast.
Joel’s hope is not in the fast itself but in God’s character as the one who is “gracious and compassionate” ( Joel 2:13). In other words, Joel says that if Israel is destroyed, God’s purposes and ability to fulfill his promises will be called into question.
Therefore God must forgive the people. Fasting, then, is not about us earning God’s forgiveness; it is about reminding ourselves through our fasting of our radical dependence on God. The fasting that begins with Ash Wednesday is caught up in the process of remembering our sins.
But it would be wrong to sidestep the reality of God’s judgment that hangs over Ash Wednesday, Lent, and fasting. Yes, God is gracious to us. But beneath that statement about grace is a reminder of what sin is. Sin is rebellion against God, and that rebellion brings judgment. Lent demands that we remember that the day of the Lord (to steal the phrase from Joel) is “a day of darkness and gloom, a day of clouds and thick darkness.”
It is good news that God judges sin, because sin harms both individuals and societies. The sins of greed and lust lead to the exploitation of women, children, and the vulnerable. The sin of racism leads to the harm of Black and Brown people in this country. The sins of arrogance and pride put us above our fellow humans. The sin of idolatry gives our hearts over to something other than our Creator. The sins of gossip and slander create lies that destroy lives and communities. God is gracious, but if we find ourselves caught up in the multitude of sins that lead to the harm of ourselves and others, we are on the wrong side of God, and that is a dangerous place to be. Lent reminds us of our danger.
The Gospel reading for Ash Wednesday highlights Jesus’ own teaching about fasting and charity:
Be careful not to practice your righteousness in front of others to be seen by them. If you do, you will have no reward from your Father in heaven. So when you give to the needy, do not announce it with trumpets, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and on the streets, to be honored by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward in full. But when you give to the needy, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, so that your giving may be in secret. Then your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you.
And when you pray, do not be like the hypocrites, for they love to pray standing in the synagogues and on the street corners to be seen by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward in full. But when you pray, go into your room, close the door and pray to your Father, who is unseen. Then your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you. (Matthew 6:1-6)
Jesus highlights the dangers of fasting and other ceremonies that surround repentance. Before we begin this season, we must remember who it is for.
The potential for self-deception is high. Any season of fasting or charity can turn into religion as performance instead of a service offered to God.
I know some who look at the pomp and ceremony of liturgical churches, with our ashes on our heads visibly setting us apart, and see in us a violation of Jesus’ commands. We should be fasting in secret. How can we reconcile a secret fast with a public Lent?
Those who engage in a season of fasting must take this criticism seriously. Isaiah too speaks about fasting for show. In his day the people fasted, but God seemed to pay no attention (see Isaiah 58:2-3). Isaiah says God isn’t paying attention because the people are exploiting their workers and engaging in violent behavior during their religious fasts (Isaiah 58:4). The ritual of fasting hasn’t touched them as persons. It hasn’t led to a change in their lives. In Isaiah 58:6-7 the prophet tells the people there is a kind of fast that God honors.
Isaiah doesn’t condemn the people for engaging in public acts of repentance. There are numerous accounts of public penance in the Bible. The people of Nineveh covered themselves in sackcloth and ashes and fasted in response to the preaching of Jonah. The problem isn’t that it is public; the problem is that it is for the public. Isaiah and Jesus make points that are much more subtle than we give them credit for. Both speak to the human heart, and getting to the bottom of its mystery is complicated. Any act can be directed toward God or other people. Jesus calls on us to examine our motives. If the problem is with our hearts, merely avoiding rituals won’t save us from danger. We can make a show of not fasting or engaging in public acts of charity because we want people to know we are not like the legalists who do such things. In other words, there is no safe place to hide from the possibility of self-deception.
Nonetheless, discretion matters. Part of the discretion we display during Lent is trusting that rewards from God may be invisible. If we make a show before people, they reward us with respect and status. Rewards from God are designed to make us into people whose lives reflect him in the world. So, yes, we mark our heads with ashes— public shows of piety are not in themselves evil. But we must guard our motivations and do most of our spiritual work in private, because the privacy of those acts reveals (if only to us) our dependence on God.
The private acts Jesus calls for include acts of mercy toward the needy. In much the same way, Jesus’ first sermon recorded in the Gospel of Luke highlights God’s concern for those who experience injustice (Luke 4:16-30). Ash Wednesday, then, reminds us of one of the things it is easy to forget during the course of our journey with God: the stepped-on people of the world. They are the people whom Black theologian Howard Thurman called “the disinherited,” those with their backs against the wall.
Our journey toward God over the forty days of Lent includes a journey toward the suffering, because that is one place where God can be found (Matthew 25:34-46). Lent is not merely about extended reflections on our own mortality. It’s a chance to open our lives and hearts to the pains of the world in imitation of our Lord, who looked with compassion on those with spiritual and material needs.
Esau McCaulley is associate professor of New Testament at Wheaton College and a contributing opinion writer for the New York Times.
He is the author of Reading While Black and Sharing in the Son’s Inheritance, and Lent: The Season of Repentance and Renewal, as well as the children’s book Josie Johnson’s Hair and the Holy Spirit. Visit his website and read his blog at esaumccaulley.com
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