Orbiting Dicta

Ash Wednesday

Joel 2:12-18
2 Cor 5:20–6:2
Mt 6:1-6,16-18

What English-speakers call Lent, a period of spiritual preparation before Easter, can be traced back to the fourth century.  It lasted 40 days, to match the time Jesus spent in preparation for his ministry.  Some time later, 4 extra week days were added so that Sundays could be omitted.  Fasting and abstaining on the Lord’s Day seemed too radical and, face it, just plain wrong.  And so Lent began on Wednesday, rather than the following Sunday.

It was about this time, also, that the custom arose of sprinkling ashes on peoples’ heads or rubbing them on the forehead to signify penitence, despite Jesus’ injunction to the contrary that we have just heard repeated.  A contradiction, you say?  Jesus himself was a master of  paradox and I suppose he would understand.  But all such things — the violet trappings, the omission of the Gloria and the joyful alleluias during mass, the absence of flowers, are all meant to remind us of something far more important than sin and guilt.  For the world has been redeemed.  The reign of sin and death has been ended.  Christ, crucified for our sins, has been raised for our justification.  Sin has no more claim on us — unless we let it.

Still, it is not beside the point to note what Joel and Jesus preach.  “Rend your hearts, not your garments, and return to the Lord your God.  For God is gracious and merciful and relenting in punishment.”  It is not only unnecessary, but wrongheaded to proclaim our repentance in public if we have not first committed ourselves to transforming our hearts.

Even more important is the point made in the First Preface for Lent, a subtle message that grounds the silent music of the days ahead: “each year you give us this joyful season when we prepare to celebrate the paschal mystery with mind and heart renewed.”  Wait for it.

In fact, the whole purpose of Lent is joy — the happy renewal of mind and heart in Christ — metanoia, spiritually changing our minds and hearts, not just our clothing or makeup.  It means reorienting ourselves, especially by promoting justice and compassion for the oppressed, weary, poverty-stricken, and disheartened.

Then what are we to make of the instructions of Joel and Jonah and other prophets about fasting, weeping, and mourning?  Like performing our good deeds, they caution us to lament secretly, lest people see what we’re up to and give us a round of applause.  At least so says Jesus.   And that’s worth thinking about.  Public apologies and displays of virtue can be deceptive, as politicians and CEOs and famous athletes demonstrate — and the greatest danger lies in deceiving ourselves. The prophetic exception is public injustice, which calls out for public outcry — moments when most of us remain all too silent.

So as you come forward to get your forehead smeared with the ashes of last year’s palms, lift up your hearts, be joyful in the Lord, smile.  Resolve to do your good deeds without notice, for we are beginning the season of metanoia.  We are preparing our minds and hearts for the great feast of our redemption.  And remember: it helps to look redeemed.