Today Lent begins, a time to re-focus on what matters most, a time for honest appraisal of who we are and what God calls us to be. If you take part today in an Ash Wednesday service which includes the imposition of ashes, you will be invited to receive a stark reminder of who you are with words like these,
"remember that you are dust,
and to dust you shall return."The sign drawn with ash on the forehead is more than a sign of penitence and a symbol of mortality, it's a sign of hope. The ash (mixed with oil) is drawn in the shape of a cross, the sign of Christ, a badge of discipleship and reminder of his death for the sins of the whole world. Words like these are also said over each person receiving the ashing, "Turn away from sin and be faithful to Christ". What will being faithful to Christ mean in your context this Lent?
Many people fast during Lent. Jesus assumed his disciples will fast but tells us
"whenever you fast, do not look dismal, like the hypocrites, for they disfigure their faces so as to show others they are fasting" (Matthew 6: 16).A common accusation levelled against Christians is that we are hypocrites. I usually answer that by saying, 'yes I agree and I'm one of them. That's why I need God's help.'
The prophet Isaiah had strong words for those whose fasting is all outward show in self-interest, while ignoring the plight of the oppressed and those in need. The message from God given through Isaiah is as relevant today as then:
"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: 6-7)
One visionary response to this I find challenging is the Ash Wednesday Prayer written last year by Christine Sine.
We have chosen to fast
Not with ashes but with actions
Not with sackcloth but in sharing
Not in thoughts but in deeds
We will give up our abundance
To share our food with the hungry
We will give up our comfort
To provide homes for the destitute
We will give up our fashions
To see the naked clothed
We will share where others hoard
We will free where others oppress
We will heal where others harm
Then God’s light will break out on us
God’s healing will quickly appear
God will guide us always
God’s righteousness will go before us
We will find our joy in the Lord
We will be like a well watered garden
We will be called repairers of broken walls
Together we will feast at God’s banquet table