Happy Ash Wednesday! Is that even an appropriate thing to say? It is not quite to the level of wishing someone a Happy Good Friday, but it’s clearly in a different realm from Happy Easter or Merry Christmas. On Ash Wednesday we enter the season in the Church calendar when we remember our mortality, our failings, and our entire dependence upon unmerited mercy from God. The gospel lectionary reading for Ash Wednesday includes this section from Matthew with Jesus’ warnings about how we publicize our acts of piety. He warns his listeners not to portray themselves as particularly righteous because of their piety, but instead to try to blend in to the surrounding world. The hypocrites like to make sure the world knows they are fasting, which marks them as hypocrites. They are not truly seeking to starve their sinful desires, face temptation, repent, and be reconciled to God; instead they want all of their friends to know how holy they are. The practice is about their glory, not God’s glory.
Fasting gets short shrift in most of our faith communities. In Matthew 6, Jesus seems to be suggesting that fasting is on par with giving to the needy and prayer, two faith practices we are not shy about. We could pretend that we are simply following Jesus instructions not to exploit fasting as a social tool, but I suspect that if we are honest that is not the case for most of us.
Fasting is hard. It is scary. It is foreign to our culture. Frankly, since we don’t talk about it, most Christians don’t know what it is, how it works, or why we should engage in it. Fortunately for all of us, myself included, we have this beautiful season in the liturgical year called Lent. We may not know how to talk about fasting, but we know how to give something up for Lent. It is ingrained in our collective life patterns. And so, at the beginning of Lent each year, Christians everywhere are reminded that fasting is a vital spiritual practice, and they take part in it.
As you walk through this Lent season, I invite you to fast from something. Each time you reach for whatever you have chosen (the tv remote, the Facebook webpage, the candy bar, the Coca-Cola, etc.) and stop yourself, give thanks to God for the great gift of Jesus the Messiah and remember his suffering for all.