After the splurge on pancakes yesterday, many Christians today feel bloated, and a bit lethargic. It’s just as well that the medieval church foresaw this problem, and made sure the first day of Lent was a super-fast day.
The whole point of Lent is to prepare for Easter – because it’s easy to boil Christianity down to certain holy days, instead of making it about a life of service. So while Jesus fasted 40 days at the outset of his public ministry, someone had the smart idea that a 40-day preparation for the holiest of holy days – Easter – was a good plan.
Christian preparation ought – rightly – to involve confession of sin. This allows us to more sweetly savour the work of Jesus, as both atoning sacrifice and cloak of righteousness. It also forces us to face the need for reconciliation with our fellow humans, particularly in the church – “forgive us, as we have forgiven others” is a radical, life-altering prayer.
But because it’s very easy to reduce Christianity to ritual behaviour, a display of repentance became the focal point. Searching the Bible, wearing sackcloth (the clothing of the utterly destitute) and sprinkling ashes (the ash-heap probably being the place of discarded rubbish) was identified as an outward display of grief, and by extension grief over sin. The problem with ritual is that it builds symbolism upon symbolism. The sprinkling became a little ashen cross on the forehead (while the priest intoned the words “repent and believe the Gospel”), and the ash itself was the blessed cinders of the previous year’s Palm Sunday branch-waving.
But what if these displays of repentance are better understood as cultural expressions, not divinely-commanded displays for all of human time? In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus compared the public displays of prayer – which he went on to teach as including repentance – with the way he expected his disciples to pray:
“And when you pray, you must not be like the hypocrites. For they love to stand and pray in the synagogues and at the street corners, that they may be seen by others. Truly, I say to you, they have received their reward. But when 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.”
(Matthew 6:5-6 ESV)
Instead of obsessing about ash-filled ritual today, why not get back to the radical heart of repentance? Firstly, enjoy a private engagement with God. The sweetness of the Gospel is that it doesn’t rely on public displays to affect inner peace. The reward of a secret-seeing Father is that the secret hurts and grief are also seen, and tenderly healed.
Secondly, be reconciled to people. Ritual masks – it papers over – the broken reality. Show the love of God today, not by wearing an ashen cross, but in a broken heart that longs to be reconciled with your hurting wife or husband, with quarrelsome parents or siblings… the power of God to heal in these situations cannot be discounted.