So what we all did together – our two parishes – on Sunday after church was to observe the tradition of Shrove Tuesday. Well of course Shrove Tuesday is supposed to be on Tuesday, but we did the pancake thing and lots of other good things as well, which as you might know is a deeply traditional way to prepare for the rigours of Lent. The theology behind Shrove Tuesday, as near as I can work it out, is that if you're going to have to do without for forty days you want a good proper knees-up first. What you might not know, however, is that in ancient times the Church did this really, really well, because the feast of pancakes – exciting as pancakes are – was just the final day of a whole season of celebration and mayhem that began on the feast of the Epiphany with practical jokes and children dressing up as bishops – and continued all the way through until the day before Ash Wednesday. Shrove Tuesday even became an official festival of the Church when Pope Gregory gave it the thumbs-up in 1587 – but it really started to live dangerously at the beginning of the 18th century in the French colony of New Orleans when it acquired its more exciting name - Mardis Gras – Fat Tuesday.
Have you ever really looked at the elaborate costumes in a Mardi Gras parade? Whether it's from Brazil or New Orleans or even Sydney's Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras – the theme is outlandish, even grotesque, over the top costumes - and masks – always masks – those marks of anonymity that allow the individual dancer to be submerged in the dance – that allow inhibitions to be dropped – the revelry of Mardi Gras requires a mask for the very reason that on Ash Wednesday the masks come off – because the dance of Mardi Gras points towards what comes next – the revealing of who the dancers really are. Now St Michaels' parishioners know I spoke a bit about Mardis Gras a few days ago – it seemed a fitting way in to thinking about the veil that Moses wore when he came whirling down from Mt Sinai in a blaze of glory carrying the words of life. And I drew a connection between the wearing of masks and the secret that who we really are is revealed when who we think we are is burned up in the incandescence of God. And today – Ash Wednesday - is the day when we find ourselves exposed, unable to hide the truth about ourselves – the day we are caught up short, unable to believe any longer in our self-serving fantasies and unable any longer to pretend that we are OK, that we are doing alright, that we are in control. The day when we are forced to acknowledge the credibility gap between who we think we are and who God created us to be.
Not all Christian traditions 'do' Lent. I was in a local Ministers' Fraternal meeting just before Lent a few years ago when one of the pastors mentioned that his church was just about to start a '40 Days of Purpose' program. It's a program where a church community refocusses on who they are and what they are about – of refocussing of individual as well as community commitment – and I thought, well, why not just do Lent? Forty days of purpose, forty days of meditation on God's yearning for a world that has forgotten that the star-dust of which it and all its creatures are composed is the DNA of God – God's yearning for a people who claim to be the body of Christ but forget, as soon as they turn away, and are so weighed down by self-obsession and worry and competitiveness that we fail to reflect the face of God that shines on us. Forty days of reminding ourselves who we really are and what it means for us – personally and corporately – to be God's people.
Unfortunately Lent has picked up some baggage along the way. Lots of us are still carrying around some childhood misconceptions about what Lent is and isn't. Lent isn't, for example, an extended period of beating up on ourselves and telling ourselves how sinful we are. Although confession, whether in private prayer or through the Church's sacrament of reconciliation, may beneficial, and a healthy recognition of how far we have drifted away from the true selves and how estranged we have become from God and one another would be timely. Lent isn't about applying an irksome discipline to ourselves or forcing ourselves to give up something we enjoy as a way of making up for our failings all the rest of the year – it's certainly not about starting that diet we always meant to get around to, or giving up smoking, or doing any number of things that we actually should be doing for the sake of our health anyway – although reassessing our priorities and caring for ourselves on a deep level is certainly part of what we need to do during Lent. It's not even about sitting in the desert with Jesus, it's not about withdrawal from the world and it's not about lament – although Lent isn't a bad time to become especially aware of God's grieving for those who sit in the ashes of our world – and to recognise that the poverty of others is connected with the way we live and the choices we make in our wealthy part of the world.
What Lent is really about is the journey we need to make toward God, our journey towards intimacy with God and allowing ourselves to be drawn into the heart of God. Giving up something for Lent is not an end in itself, it's not an exercise in self-discipline and it's certainly not a penance, but it may be an important help in removing the obstacles, making space for meditation by paying less attention to the things that distract us from God. Certainly the habits of mind and the disciplines of Lent call us into a way of life that goes against the grain of our 21st century consumer culture – the culture we live in that encourages us to multiply our distractions, not to set them aside – and that devises more and more ways for us to avoid the encounter with our real selves. The call to Lenten discipline – the call to discover the heart of Christ which is our true Self - is not only counter-cultural but subversive, and it is more powerful and insistent than we recognise - it has the potential to transform not only us but our world as well.
Just imagine – in a world that thinks being in love means never having to say you're sorry – we are called to basic honesty about ourselves and to repentance – to keep on saying sorry over and over until we really hear it. In a world where the more you have, the more people admire you – we are called to live with less. In a world congested with information and with noise – we are called to spend time in reflection and in silence. In a world which has forgotten the past and which mistakes the fleeting images on TV screens for reality - we are called to study the scriptures and to see in the narrative of creation and the history of God's people the template for our present and our future. In a world where the reality of death is hidden behind respirators and life support machines, and where we desperately search for medical miracles to put off the inevitable, the liturgy of Ash Wednesday reminds us that we will die, and that dying, too is a divinely gifted moment in the love-song of our lives.
And so we are drawn into the true journey of our own lives - because when we no longer run away in terror from the idea of our own death, then we begin to notice that the dividing line between this life and the deep inner life of the Spirit is not as sharp as we once thought. Death is not something to fear because it is not a journey into unknown territory but a return to something we have come from and which we have always known – in the liturgy of Ash Wednesday we remember that we are created and loved, that the deep substance of us is the earth.
Lent, then, is about letting go of the pretty games we distract ourselves with, and allowing ourselves to be drawn into the deeper reality which is love. About letting go of what we pretend gives us value, so that we can see the true value of ourselves, which is that we are made in God's image. About letting go of things and immersing ourselves in silence so that we can see that God is already woven into the deep substance of our selves. In Lent we let go of our false self in order to reveal our true self.
Lent is a dance in which, finally, the masks come off – a dance that takes us away from masked anonymity and the distracting swirl of colour and raucous music – and towards the truth of who we are. During Lent we discover that we don't need to wear a mask for God to love us or for us to love ourselves. We don't need to pretend that we never make mistakes. We can face the truth about ourselves and ask forgiveness for the sin we recognise in ourselves – and we can enter into the dance that leads us ever closer to the discovery that deep within us is the heart of Christ, that the deep interior shape of our true self is the image of God.
And so I invite you to keep a holy Lent …