By Jackie Schmitt
Grace Joel 2:1-12, 12-17 Ps. 103:8-14
2 Cor. 5:20b-6:10 Matt 6:1-6, 16-21
I have friends who rent a little apartment in New Orleans every year in February in March – just in time for the wild partying that New Orleans is famous for in the days – and weeks – before Lent.
Mardi Gras has deep religious symbolism. During the Mardi Gras revels in New Orleans, or Carnival in other parts of the world, the participants wear masks, to hide their real identities and carry on as someone else – as someone wild and irresponsible, as someone you would never be in your right mind. But today, on Ash Wednesday, the masks come off. The revelers of last night are revealed today as who they really are, stripped down and laid bare.
During Lent the church has for centuries encouraged the practice of fasting, of giving something up, as a spiritual discipline. Symbolically, fasting is a way for us to take off our masks, to lay ourselves bare before God – to be for once, at least, real to God. Fasting is about not pretending we are someone else, at least for right now. Fasting – even if it is a small thing we do or do not do, a small thing we give up, a small discipline we take on – is our symbolic way to journey inward, inside ourselves, with God.
The observance of a Holy Lent, through fasting and discipline, also has a social dimension: fasting and doing justice are united. When we fast, or whatever we do during Lent, we are about justice: about restoring our right relationship to God and humanity. From the days of the early church, theologians have called fasting “the restoration of stolen things, not the generous gift of them to the deserving, out of our rightfully owned bounty.”(1) When we “give up” something during Lent, it is to remember what we have is part of the commonwealth - -the wealth common to all the people of God. From bishops in the 4th century, we hear this repeated theme. Basil the Great proclaimed, "The bread in your cupboard belongs to the hungry, the coat hanging unused in your closet belongs to the one who needs it; the shoes rotting in your closet belong to the one who has no shoes, the money which you hoard up belongs to the poor." St. Augustine wrote, "Assisting the needy is justice."
Lent, then, is personal and social – and in this world, profoundly counter-cultural. Where the rest of society revels in sort of a permanent Mardi Gras of excess, consumerism, exploitation and even violence, we Christians are called to take off the masks and costumes and clothe ourselves in simplicity and silence. When the rest of society values getting more and more, we are called to give things up, to share what we have with those who have less. When the rest of society is in a mad rush, admitting no wrong and taking no prisoners, we are called to stop and think and pray and repent – to take stock of all that we have and all that we have done which keep us from