[Published in the Wilkes Barre Times Leader on Ash Wednesday]
The Christian season of Lent, which begins today, is a hard sell. In the darkest, coldest season of the year, the church calls people together to put a smudge of ashes on their foreheads, remind them that they are going to die and turn to dust, and suggest that now might be a good time to repent of their sins and amend their lives.
Unlike a Presidents Day weekend car sale, Lent doesn’t promise big financial savings. Unlike the opening of baseball’s spring training camps, Lent doesn’t reassure us that the pleasures of spring will soon be upon us, and that all we have to do is wait. Yet there is more to Lent than a command to eat your spiritual spinach.
Only seven short weeks ago, many of us made New Year’s resolutions. We were going to eat less, drink less and exercise more. We were going to seize control of our runaway schedules, screw up our courage and confront that challenge that we’ve been putting off, maybe for years. New Year’s resolutions are a kind of repentance – the word in the original Greek means “turning” – a deliberate decision to live some part of our lives in a different way.
In their way, New Year’s resolutions aren’t that different from the practice of “giving something up” for Lent. Irenaeus, a second century theologian, wrote that the glory of God is a human being fully alive. Weighed down by work or financial anxieties, health issues or pressing family concerns, few of us are as fully alive as God intends us to be. On some deep level we sense this, and so we make resolutions and fast on things such as sweets and alcohol.
But I am sure that I am not the only person to wonder whether getting out of bed on a cold morning to exercise, or letting a tempting tray of food pass me by untouched, is worth it. Are the things I do to become more fully alive, to become the person God is calling me to be, actually working?
The Bible offers some surprising and conflicting guidance. Jesus certainly fasted and practiced self-denial. The 40 days of Lent are modeled on the 40 days that he spent in the wilderness after he was baptized by John. Yet the prophet Hosea says that God desires “mercy, not sacrifice,” and Hosea’s words made such an impression on Jesus that he repeats them to those who criticized him for counting outcasts and sinners among his disciples.
I take this to mean that God is not interested in sacrifice for its own sake. The fact that you’ve gone 40 days without a Bud Light doesn’t make God smile if the way you treat your family, your neighbors or people who live on the margins of our society makes God weep. Our disciples and resolutions are effective if they help to deepen our awareness of God’s love, clarify our sense of the things that God is calling us to do, and make us more willing to serve God and one another
None of this is to say that we shouldn’t go easy on the sea salt-and-vinegar potato chips for the next six or seven weeks. But we shouldn’t confuse means with ends.
The prophet Micah had a ready answer for those who asked him what kind of sacrifice God wanted from them. Was it rivers of oil? Thousands of rams? First-born children? No, Micah says. God wants you “to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God.”
If you are better able to do these things on Easter Sunday than you are today, you will have made good resolutions and had a holy Lent.
[Sean Rowe is the provisional bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of Bethlehem, which includes more than 10,000 Episcopalians in 60 congregations across Northeastern Pennsylvania, including Wilkes-Barre, Scranton and Hazleton. He is also bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of Northwestern Pennsylvania, headquartered in Erie.]