May Ash Wednesday Be About Substance Rather Than Form

Ash Wednesday always brought out the most wonderfully subversive side of my wife, Ginger, when I was in seminary. Lent at General Theological Seminary, at least in the days I was a student there, was just more than Ginger could bear. I don't know if this is still done, but in those days, the marble statues in the reredos were covered in burlap bags beginning on Ash Wednesday until the Great Vigil of Easter. On Ash Wednesday, Ginger rebelled. Rather than observing the solemnity of the day with the imposition of ashes, Ginger went up to Eighth Avenue to David's Cookies to buy warm cookies. And not just for herself. She brought a bagful back to the seminary and distributed them to students and student families, particularly children. Fresh cookies remind her more of God. Being happy seemed more like God would want than a 40-day-long depression.

Somehow along the way we seem to have gotten the idea that Ash Wednesday is for feeling miserable. Lent is about making ourselves miserable through the practice of self-denial. Somehow, we imagine, this pleases God.

We give up the things that delight us the rest of the year just so, I suppose, in depriving ourselves of good things, we may get a enough of the experience of being unhappy so that we deserve to get a break when it comes to getting into heaven. I had a friend who gave up his favorite thing, which was hamburgers, for Lent. I'm not sure where God is in that. I have friends who give up chocolate. I'm not sure where God is in that. I have friends who give up alcohol. That's all well and good, but the problem is it's never the ones who need to give up alcohol. It makes me wonder if there isn't another way to look at Lent.

What if Lent were not about giving up something that makes us happy, but taking something on that makes us better, maybe even joyful? What if the purpose of Lent were not to be miserable but to live life more abundantly, not less? What if we gave up those things that make us unhealthy and take on those things that make us well?

Is such the fast that I choose, a day to humble oneself? Is it to bow down the head like a bulrush, and to lie in sackcloth and ashes? Will you call this a fast, a day acceptable to the LORD? Is not this the fast that I choose: to loose the bonds of injustice, to undo the thongs of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free and to break every yoke? Is it not to share your bread with the hungry, and bring the homeless poor into your house; when you see the naked, to cover them, and not to hide yourself from your own kin? Then your light shall break forth like the dawn, and your healing shall spring up quickly. (Isa. 58:5-8)

I think Isaiah may have been a Lenten subversive, too. God, it seems, has little use for the pretense and show, the sackcloth and ashes and fasting. It never ceases to amaze me, for instance, that in our Gospel for this very day, Jesus warns, "Beware of practicing your piety before others in order to be seen by them; for then you have no reward from your Father in heaven," and then that's exactly what we proceed to do with crosses of ash portrayed prominently on our foreheads.

What if instead of fasting from hamburgers and chocolate, we instead took up a fast from injustice? What if instead of giving up worldly pleasures, we gave up oppression? Wouldn't we end up actually happier? What if instead of being unhappy, we proclaimed freedom and liberty from what binds us? Wouldn't we end up actually happier?

What if instead of denying ourselves nourishment, we shared our bread with the hungry? What if instead of refraining from fine things like statues and the beautiful vestments, we invited the homeless to share our homes and used our resources to cover the naked?

The great danger of Lent, I think, is that we get so caught up in observing the form of it, that we forget the substance of it.

May Ash Wednesday be about substance rather than form for us, less about sackcloth and ashes and fasting and more about healing and health and wholeness. May Lent be less about wallowing in despair and more about soaring in joy, which I have to believe is more what God actually intends. May Lent be less about giving up and more about building up, building up the body, the community, the people of God, and the coming of the kingdom of God. Amen.