Homily for Ash Wednesday: The War on Lent (February 22, 2023) (The Rev. Dr. Deborah White)
Many of you may have heard that there is a civil war raging in our country. It’s the “war on Christmas,” or, more accurately, the war for Christmas. For about a decade, conservative political and religious leaders have been arguing that there is a plot to “take the religion out of Christmas” and turn it into a secular holiday. And, while the focus has been on Christmas, you could easily argue that there’s a war on Easter too – with Easter baskets, egg hunts, and even hot cross buns grabbing a lot of more of the press than the actual resurrection of Christ. But here’s the thing: if there are wars on Christmas and Easter, then irate commentators are looking in the wrong direction for who to blame for those battles. Instead of taking aim at non-Christians for manipulating popular culture to do away with the theological understanding of our feast days, they might look a little closer to home. Because it is Christians who have forgotten the reason for these seasons.
Christian holy days have actually always dwelt in the tension between Christian belief and popular culture. The early Christians worked hard to spread the good news of salvation through Jesus Christ, and they were not above “borrowing” some of the celebratory bells and whistles of their pagan and Jewish neighbors in order to popularize their new religion. This was not a problem for them, as they knew where liturgy ended and partying began, but over time Christians seem to have lost the thread. We are now just as likely to buy gifts, do crafts, and cook large meals on our feast days as our non-Christian brethren. This creates a problem – not because enjoying religious feasts is wrong, but because these things take both attention time that could be better spent praying or helping others in need.
In one sense, this outcome is not surprising, given that human beings have demonstrated self-absorption and poor attention to moral direction from the beginning of time. What I did not expect is for the season of Lent to enter the fray - but apparently it has. I recently read an article entitled, “Why secular Lent misses the point.” In it, writer Tara Burton describes how non-Christians have adopted the season of Lent, using it as a time of self-improvement. It seems that Lent, like yoga and meditation, has been divorced from its religious foundation and appropriated as popular culture. Burton reports that, “in some corners of the Internet, Lent has become secularized, reimagined as another opportunity for a kind of spiritual wellness “cleanse” (whether of food, drink, or social media habits), a second chance at kickstarting those neglected New Year’s resolutions.”
Even more surprising is the fact that, with the addition of non-religious participants, observance of Lent is growing. This kind of adoption by the greater culture is exactly the result that the early Christians were looking for when they appropriated pagan rituals and applied them to Christian holy days. Perhaps we modern Christians should be happy about the similar appropriation of Lent and just go with it.
I think not. First of all, there is no suggestion that adopting the self-denial of Lenten practice has led to any conversions to Christianity. That’s because these new “Lenten” practices are contrary to the actual purpose of the season. Lent was instituted by the first Christians as a time of “penitence and fasting” for all Christians, but especially for those who had committed “notorious” sins and were separated from the church. The idea was to bring the community back together, stronger than ever. They did this by focusing on penitence and repentance - confessing, examining, and trying to make up for our sins. This is a spiritual practice that engages but is not motivated by a desire to change our physical bodies. Instead, we are asked to use this time to become closer to God and one another.
It is also important to remember that fasting and self-deprivation may be the most famous of Lenten disciplines, but they are not the only ones. Traditional Lenten observation includes four other regular practices: Prayer, scripture reading, communal worship, and acts of mercy. Each of these actions is designed to bring us closer to God and one another - and all of them require shifting our concentration from self to others – from “me” to “us.” As Giles Frasier suggests, “The irony of the secular Lent of giving up chocolate etcetera is that it turns a period of self-denial into one of self-regard.” This is not what scripture tells us Lent should be. Self-aggrandizing fasts, says Isaiah, will not make your voice heard on high. Attention-seeking fasts, Jesus warns, are their own reward. You may get your moment on Instagram, but you might lose your soul.
Today, as we accept the ashes that remind us of our own mortality, consider how you might participate in Lent. Will you gaze lovingly at your navel, considering how thin and beautiful you might become if you give up desserts this Lent? Or will you join in the real war - the battle against our lesser selves – by sharing the mercy and forgiveness that has been offered to us with others? Whatever you decide, remember that where your treasure is, there your heart lies also. AMEN.
Tara Isabella Burton (February 14, 2018), “Why secular Lent misses the point; Lent is not about having your best life now,” Vox, https://www.vox.com/2018/2/14/17007284/why-secular-lent-misses-the-point-christian-ash-wednesday Ibid. Giles Frasier, quoted in Tara Isabella Burton (February 14, 2018), “Why secular Lent misses the point; Lent is not about having your best life now,” Vox, https://www.vox.com/2018/2/14/17007284/why-secular-lent-misses-the-point-christian-ash-wednesday