This is a slightly modified version of the text of my sermon from Ash Wednesday.
Ash Wednesday and Lent have a reputation of being a little joyless. We can’t do the things we like. Don’t even think about smiling.
And yes, self-denial can be a part of Lent, and fasting, and penitence, and facing the brokenness in ourselves and the world, which can be a very serious matter.
But we can still find joy, and connection and silliness, and meaning, and wisdom, nonetheless.
That has been a profound learning for me from this pandemic, which certainly feels like it has been a year’s worth of Lent. We have been forced to give up a lot, some more than others.
However, almost every single person I’ve talked to has found some blessing, even if just a small one.
That is not to say that this event has been redeemed. That is not to say that the suffering has not been real, has somehow been good. It has not been good.
Nevertheless, there has been some learning, some joy, some insight, some love, some laughter, some moments of connection in an otherwise disconnecting experience.
That’s why, I think, I heard Jesus’ words in the gospel of Matthew a little differently this year.
“And whenever you fast, do not look dismal.”
Is this teaching on spiritual disciplines about showboating and self-righteousness? Surely.
But I also heard something new. ‘Whenever you fast, do not look dismal.’ ‘Do not look dismal.’ However, it doesn’t specify how we are to feel… And maybe that means we don’t have to make ourselves feel dismal because we think we ought to… Of course, if that is how we feel, that’s OK. But if we are fasting and there are moments of goodness, that is OK too.
Jesus goes on, “when you fast, put oil on your head and wash your face, so that your fasting may be seen not by others but by your Father who is in secret…”
Putting oil on your head and washing your face isn’t just performative, it feels good too. It’s a self-loving and caring act.
It’s ok to do things that make you feel good, that help you to take care of yourself this Lent.
The purpose of Ash Wednesday and Lent are not about being weighed down and crushed, they are about liberation, our liberation and the liberation of the whole world.
We are dust, and to dust we shall return. We are mortal. We are not God. Isn’t there some liberating in that? Thank God I’m not God.
We face our sin and name it, which while uncomfortable, might actually be its own kind of liberation.
Let us observe a Holy Lent, whether you laugh or cry, however you feel, I hope you experience a little taste of the liberation of this season.
Thanks be to God!