Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Ash Wednesday

Welcome to the unpopular season.

Lent has a bit of an image problem, doesn't it?  Perhaps the Church needs to think about this.  Some of our Christian holy days and seasons cut through very nicely, to use an advertising term.  Christmas, for example, has been wildly successful, everyone celebrates Christmas, even atheists, it's the festival that brings us all together, the Christmas story even generously bends a bit to accommodate the lowest common denominator of feel-good sentimentalism, family or community spirit that we can all agree on.  We scrimp and save up in special Christmas funds, shop till we drop and cook and clean and decorate our houses with tinsel and fake snow and over-indulge to demonstrate that we have the right Christmas spirit, and even if we sigh gratefully when it's all over we don't really mind and we'll do it all next year. 

Even Easter does very well, we eat hot cross buns and Easter eggs as soon as they come out in the stores on January 1st and celebrate the gift of an extra long weekend.  The feast of St Valentine is an absolute godsend for Hallmark, who must be eternally grateful for whichever Valentine it was who got himself executed by a squad of archers during the reign of Emperor Diocletian.  Other Christian festivals don't have quite the same universal appeal, you don't get harangued for example by Myer or David Jones to get your Pentecost shopping done or by Australia Post to make sure you send your Trinity cards out of time.  But we appreciate them in the church, the chance for a bit of extra light and colour, the high points of the Christian calendar add life and energy to our worship.

But Lent is unpopular, even in the Church.  And the trouble of course is right there in the readings, the prophet Joel complaining as prophets are prone to, and telling you personally in no uncertain terms how disappointing you are, that wars or climate change or famine – whatever – it's all your fault.  And the bit from the Sermon on the Mount in Matthew's Gospel telling you not only that we have to fast and pray and make yourself thoroughly miserable except that you're not even allowed to look miserable, you're not even allowed to enjoy being self-righteous.

Well, we live in a society that is ambivalent about all this self-discipline and introspection stuff.  On the one hand you might think we are all carefree hedonists, what with our nightclubs and entertainment industry and our worship of sport, not to mention our habit of celebrating on the slightest pretext by shooting a half-million dollars worth of fireworks into the sky.  Life's too short, self-sacrifice and self-denial are old hat.  On the other hand, we tut-tut in almost Puritanical fashion whenever some public figure gets found out in some peccadillo, we keep check on our neighbours to make sure they aren't using their sprinklers on the wrong day and the new religion of anxiety about climate change and energy saving and immigrants who dare to look or act or worship differently is doing very well.  Our culture gives us mixed messages, and we are just not very good at stopping and reflecting on the internal contradictions.

Lent makes us uncomfortable.  Lent asks us to give something up, and right for a start that makes us suspicious.  Year after year, Christians stress about whether or not Lent is God's way of telling them to go on that diet they've been putting off, whether not eating chocolate or drinking alcohol is the real purpose of Lent, or for teenagers, whether 40 days without a mobile phone is even possible.  And we get defensive, heck, we live on the smell of an oily rag anyway so why should we be expected to go without the one little luxury we reward ourselves with?  Ever since last Advent we've been forking out for this special appeal or that one, guilted out by every worthwhile cause and some that frankly don't look all that worthwhile, and no, it hasn't escaped our notice that every week during Lent the Church expects us to make an special offering to ABM, so really! 

If it's not the emphasis on discipline and self-denial then it's the big-picture themes of penitence and prayer.  You see we actually know we need this stuff.  We know our spirituality needs some attention, we know we need to spend some time reconnecting with God, quietly listening to the inner currents of our own lives and attending to the movement of God's Holy Spirit within us.  Contemplation, meditation, whatever you call it, taking time to practise holiness.  We are aware it is an option, but it doesn't for the most part seem to fit within the demands of a busy life.  I don't so much pray, Father – I meditate while I'm driving.  Well alright, just as long as I'm not driving on the same freeway with you.  Deep down we know – I include myself in this – we need to be spending some quality time in prayer, and Lent is maybe unpopular because it reminds us of this.

And unless we are totally unreflective we also know we have some things to repent of.  Personal things.  We know deep down that the inequality of this world is down to us.  We know we consume more stuff – whether we eat it or wear it or drive it or live in it – week by week than the poor of this world – the two-thirds world – will ever see in a lifetime and that it is our consumer choices that perpetuate that.  We know – or if you don't, then I'm telling you – that to make a single pair of jeans, for example, uses 5 tonnes of water, not to mention the sweatshop labour, the modern version of slavery, that the Western fashion industry depends on.  Buying your next pair of jeans at our Op Shop is a political action of considerable importance in fact.  We have to repent of our lifestyle choices.  And closer to home, how many times, I have to ask myself, have I been so focussed on my next task that I have rushed through a conversation with someone who needed my time, how many times have I been more interested in vegging out in front of TV than spending time with the important people in my life? Repentance is a deeply unpopular word, we don't like to admit our complicity either in the big things that divide our world or the multitude of small hurts we inflict at a more personal level.  We don't like to admit it, but yes, we know we need it.

We need Lent.  We need the opportunity – even, perhaps, we need the excuse – to turn aside from business as usual and actually notice, pay attention, to what's going on inside us, in our world, and in one another.  To pay attention to the gift of time which isn't ours to dispose of, the kairos of God's time which is interwoven with the calendars and appointments, with the chronos of the world's time.  Lent, though at some level we resist it, is a gift to people starved for meaning, for reflection, and for time.

Seen this way, the choice of giving something up for Lent makes a little more sense.  It's not to deprive you but to sustain you with the gift of absence – an absence of stuff, an absence of clutter and distraction and noise.  It's a sweeping aside – for a brief time – of the stuff that prevents you from attending to what is really going on within and around you, also the stuff that you use as a substitute – unconsciously perhaps – the stuff you use to distract yourself with in order to prevent yourself from seeing the disturbing truth about your own soul, your own relationships.  Give something up in order to spoil yourself – with the gift of reflection, the gift of being fully present to the people you love, the gift of hearing within you the unmistakable whisper of God's Holy Spirit.

Spoil yourself, this Lent, with the gift of being fully present to the one who empties his own life in order to be fully present to you.  It's a paradox, as the heart of our faith always is, the paradox of resurrection itself.  But it's a simple paradox.  Lent reminds us – to put it bluntly - that we are full of ourselves, and invites us to fix that.  To pour some of our selves out, so that on Easter morning we can be full of the risen Christ.