“Is such the fast that I choose, a day to humble oneself? Is it to bow down the head like a bulrush, and to lie in sackcloth and ashes? Will you call this a fast, a day acceptable to the Lord? Is not this the fast that I choose: to loose the bonds of injustice, to undo the thongs of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free, and to break every yoke? Is it not to share your bread with the hungry, and bring the homeless poor into your house; when you see the naked, to cover them, and not to hide yourself from your own kin?” Isaiah 58:5-7
For the observant Christian, Ash Wednesday liturgically signals the beginning of the 40-day season of Lent. It is the sacred season that commemorates the period beginning right after the baptism of Jesus up until the beginning of his public ministry, which was marked by his first publicly recorded sermon in the entire New Testament in Luke 4. According to the Synoptic gospels of Matthew, Mark and Luke, Jesus spent forty days fasting in the desert after his baptism and before the beginning of his public ministry. Lent, therefore, is described as being forty days long (although the way the forty days is calculated vary along the broad spectrum of Western, Eastern, and Oriental Christian traditions). The narrative has obvious theological symmetry with the forty days of wandering in the desert of the Israelites following their liberation from slavery in Egypt. The gospels report that in the wilderness Jesus faced, endured, and surmounted temptations by Satan. The practice of the ritual application of ash on one’s self also symbolizes our mortality, the provisionality of our physical existence, our sinfulness, brokenness, our vulnerability to temptations, and our need for repentance. We are after all, as Jesus said, just “like grass” – here today and gone tomorrow.
But, predictably, American popular culture at this time of the year is more attuned to the carnival revelries of Mardi Gras, which is the French word for “Fat Tuesday,” that precedes Ash Wednesday. Mardi Gras is the final day of festivities of the carnival season and, as most of us already know, it features parades, masquerades, and often attended by ribald libertinism. The carnivals precede Ash Wednesday, the beginning of the penitential season of Lent, as if mocking the traditional emphasis on fasting and penitence that is ushered in by Ash Wednesday. The message is unmistakable. The emphasis of Lent on fasting and penitence is to be preceded by a binge of self-indulgence and gluttony to last you the entire period of 40 days – like a bear wantonly fattening up with food before slumbering in the scarcity of hibernation for the winter.
I must confess that I always experience a subtle and lingering sense of spiritual restlessness and unease every time I realize that we are in the season of Lent. A part of me always yearns for a more meaningful expression of this most important, but neglected, season of the Christian liturgical year. I also believe that part of the sense of unease that I feel is the fact that I, too, find myself in the midst of a wider consumerist culture that essentially commodifies everything and trivializes even the meaning of Lent. The practice of fasting, for example, that has been traditionally connected to Lent has now – to the wider society – become a mere occasion to display self-indulgent piety by giving up superfluous “luxuries” on Ash Wednesday or Good Friday, like chocolate, red meat, or a favorite indulgence. But then meals that break a fast have become occasions for feasting. For many Protestants, fasting as a spiritual discipline has even disappeared altogether for the catechumen. For why would anyone from the Reformed tradition bother themselves with fasting and penance when one is saved by faith and by grace (one of the unintended legacies of the sola fide and sola gratia tradition)?
As a multilingual person, I have a profound appreciation of language as a component of culture, and how the power of its words give meaning derived from its peculiar location. And so I have found the discipline of studying the etymology of words as a vital hermeneutic in gaining a deeper understanding of the meaning that words codify.
The first word used to describe this liturgical season was the Greek word, tessarakoste, which means the “fortieth” day before Easter. The Christian community in western Europe adopted the Latin term, quadragesima. Together with its Spanish equivalent, cuaresma, the root word in Greek brings us closest to the theological meaning of the concept. The English word, Lent, on the other hand, really has no direct etymological relationship with the essence and meaning that the liturgical season evokes. It was only in the late Middle Ages, when sermons began to be delivered in the vernacular instead of the prevailing Latin, that the English word Lent was adopted. The word itself simply means “spring” (as it is in German, lenz, and in Dutch, lente), and derives from its Germanic root for “long” because in the spring season the days obviously lengthen. And so it can be said that the English word, Lent, originated from another word altogether.
Far more than mere fasting from one’s favorite indulgences, the traditional purpose of Lent is the ritual preparation and spiritual rededication of the believer and the church to their purpose in the world. The distortion of sacred rituals to serve self-indulgent and superficial displays of piety is not new.
Seen in its proper linguistic context, the meaning of Lent becomes stark. It is the period of the liturgical year from Ash Wednesday to Easter. Far more than mere fasting from one’s favorite indulgences, the traditional purpose of Lent is the ritual preparation and spiritual rededication of the believer and the church to their purpose in the world. The distortion of sacred rituals to serve self-indulgent and superficial displays of piety is not new. The prophet Amos, in chapter 5:21-24 (RSV), proclaims:
I hate, I despise your feasts, and I take no delight in your solemn assemblies. Even though you offer me your burnt offerings and cereal offerings, I will not accept them, and the peace offerings of your fatted beasts I will not look upon. Take away from me the noise of your songs; to the melody of your harps I will not listen. But let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.
God laments the distortion that counterfeit spirituality does to the soul. False piety cannot masquerade as faithfulness. In fact, false piety only exposes one’s true motives and inner self, because a spiritual charlatan’s words never cohere with his/her actions. We cannot authentically enter and experience God’s gracious presence unless we go through the destruction of the false self. The false self has many faces – self-love, self-pity, self-hatred, self-justification, self-righteousness, self-glorification, self-pride – to name a few. And so, if we understand sanctification as the growth in divine grace, we also need to understand that that growth does not happen on its own, by osmosis as it were, but comes from making concrete daily commitments and decisions to hold our lives to the way of Jesus. We grow in divine grace because when we consistently dwell in the presence of God, and do God’s will, we never come away unchanged, untransformed.
Jesus’ teachings to his disciples on authentic piety, distilled in the Sermon on the Mount, reflect God’s abiding concern for the vital role of the people of God as participants in bringing to bear the reign of God’s kingdom of love. We cannot enter God’s presence and discern the ministry of Jesus, unless we scrape off the barnacles of the false self that grow as encrustations on the surface of our souls. The false self leads us away from our authenticity before God. God does not desire our superficial sacrifices. God wants to claim our hearts not in terms of its cells, muscles, and tissue – but its entire essence. God is a jealous God in this way. This is why the first commandment stakes God’s claim: “You shall have no other gods before me” (Exodus 20:3). Jesus summarizes this eternal concern of God for us when he said, “For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also” (Matthew 6:21). The church faces many dangers in every era because the very nature of her mission on earth inevitably leads her to engage the principalities and powers of this world, in the same way Jesus had to engage the temptations of the world in the wilderness. In crystallizing his mission and identity, Jesus overcame all the temptations thrown at him: “I have said this to you, that in me you may have peace. In the world you have tribulation; but be of good cheer, I have overcome the world” (John 16:33 NKJV).
And so, the greatest danger to the church does not come from without it; its greatest threat comes from within itself. Counterfeit religion is the Tempter’s way of preventing the church from accomplishing her mission on earth.
The ashes of Ash Wednesday remind us that we are all mortals – spiritually poor, and eternally needy – a need that can only be filled by the Bread of Life. The words of the prophet Isaiah echo from thousands of years past, to speak to us with the same urgency of the now. There is a coherent, sacramental logic that weaves through the season of Lent. It requires us to turn inwardly, to look into our mortality and brokenness, to reckon with the fleeting nature of our existence, of our being mere “grass,” “dust,” and “ash” – that in confessing our inadequacy and the provisionality of our existence, we may be moved to repentance, into submission and trust in God, and take us deeper into God’s transforming forgiveness. That forgiveness liberates us from our false self. In God’s reign, the norms of the world are upended. The words of the prophet Isaiah address the perils of a counterfeit spirituality, and call God’s people back to their destined vocation on earth – the emptying of the self for the sake of others, loosening the bonds of injustice, undoing the thongs of the yoke, setting the oppressed free, sharing the bread with the hungry, bringing the homeless to your house, covering the naked, and not alienating ourselves from our neighbors.
The solemn liturgical season of Lent is antithetical to the mockery of shallow and fraudulent spirituality. The baptism of Jesus and his sojourn in the wilderness, contending against the principalities and powers of the world, is emblematic of the journey of the church. Luke chapter 4 narrates how Jesus launched his public ministry, reporting that in overcoming the temptations, he came away from the wilderness in the power of the Spirit. When he arrived in Nazareth where he grew up, he went to the synagogue on the Sabbath day as was his custom. He stood up to read, and he was handed the scroll of the prophet Isaiah. He opened it to Isaiah 61, and read the first few verses where the prophet proclaims the encouragement and assurance of God to the exiles and the oppressed:
The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,
because he has anointed me
to bring good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives
and recovery of sight to the blind,
to let the oppressed go free,
to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.
And he rolled up the scroll, gave it back to the attendant, and sat down. The eyes of all in the synagogue were fixed on him. Then he began to say to them, ‘Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing’ (Luke 4:18-21).
In declaring this ancient prophecy as having been fulfilled in the utterance of his voice and before his corporeal presence, Jesus not only claims his messiahship, but he also radically sets forth the mission of God’s people on earth – its GPS, as it were, to guide and keep its journey straight and true. If the church is the continuing presence of Christ in the world, then our journey here on earth must mirror the journey and destiny of Jesus on earth – from baptism to its culmination on Easter. Lent is the time to spiritually reenact in our souls the purposeful order of Jesus’ journey which is critical to the identity of the church and the consciousness of her disciples – repentance and baptism, engaging the powers and principalities of the world, clarifying and claiming our mission, preparation, ministry, proclamation, rejection, healing, and resurrection.
There is no shortcut from the wilderness for the disciple of Jesus. The followers of Jesus cannot be Fat Tuesday Christians. Lent is the sacred season when the church can once again renew, internalize, and proclaim her destiny in Christ, and rededicate herself to embracing – in corporeal and concrete ways – all the stations in that journey. May the season of Lent, indeed, prepare us in a faithful way for the renewal of our mission in the world, to offer ourselves in a deeper way to become more faithful participants in the extravagant and generous work of God’s grace and mercy in the world.