Posted by: Sue Spencer | February 15, 2008

The Props Are Taken Away

What is the purpose of Lenten fasting? Why do we make our lives more austere during these forty days?

Certainly not to feel “moral,” or “holier than thou.” All that does is stroke the ego, and thus defeat the whole purpose. As Jesus reminds us, those who try to impress others – or, for that matter, themselves – with their piety “already have their reward” (Matthew 6:2, 5, 16) – a reward of definitely lesser goods.

Nor does the prayer for Ash Wednesday in the Book of Common Prayer, beautiful as it is, quite say it for me. It speaks of “worthily lamenting our sins and acknowledging our wretchedness” so that we may obtain from God “perfect remission and forgiveness.” Such penitential piety certainly has a place in Lenten spirituality, but I’m not convinced it should be the main event. It’s not that we don’t regularly fall into sin, and sometimes even into wretchedness. But excessive focus on these, I fear, puts us in danger of excessive self-centeredness.

This verse of our community’s morning Lenten hymn, attributed to Gregory the Great, comes closer to expressing it for me. It’s verse 4 of Hymn 152 in the 1982 Hymnal:

Give us the discipline that springs/ from abstinence in outward things/ with inward fasting, so that we/ in heart and soul may dwell with thee.

A beautiful Ash Wednesday prayer, from Englishwoman Janet Morley, in All Desires Known: Inclusive Prayers for Worship and Meditation (Harrisburg: Morehouse Publishing, 1988, 1992) also speaks to me:

O God/ you have made us for yourself/ and against your longing there is no defence./ Mark us with your love/ and release in us a passion for your justice/ in our disfigured world;/ that we may turn from our guilt and face you/ our hearts desire. Amen.

For me, what Lenten austerity is really about is turning, shifting our focus. It’s about taking away some of the props and distractions that we’re used to counting on, forcing us to seek deeper and more lasting sources of sustenance. Thus we’re drawn more deeply into prayer, into a more immediate relationship with the Holy One, “against [whose] longing there is no defence.”

In Lent, we’re invited, as Martin Smith tells us, to do what Jesus did, and hand ourselves over to the Spirit. What this does is expose us to the truth (in Greek, aletheia or “unhiddenness”) which “happens to us when the coverings of illusion are stripped away and what is real emerges into the open.” This truth “consists not in new furniture for the mind but in exposure to the reality of God’s presence in ourselves and the world” (A Season for the Spirit, p. 6).

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