The challenge of Ash Wednesday, indeed the challenge for the Lenten Season, is to find a different rhythm for life. The greater challenge is to find a way to let that seasonal rhythm set a new tone for living beyond a period of commitment to reflectiveness.
In some popular versions of Lenten practice the season is a time to give up something–a food, a habit, or a pleasure–with the understanding that, come Easter, that which was given up will be embraced again. Such a practice is merely a different sort of self indulgence.
Gregory I, who was pope from 590 until 604, is regarded as the architect of the 40-day fast we know as Lent. It was he who began the rituals associated with Ash Wednesday, applying ashes to the forehead as a reminder of mortality, “ashes to ashes, dust to dust,” and encouraging Christians to follow in the path of Jesus as he journeyed toward Jerusalem.
Observing Lent in our day, whether one is Catholic or Protestant, puts a Christian at odds with the prevailing culture of consumerism. As a practice that strives to transform a lifestyle, the observance of Lent rejects the superiority of a materialistic society and economy in favor of a community striving to cultivate and embody the spirit of Christ. The challenge of Ash Wednesday is, indeed, to find a different rhythm for life
The prophet Joel is characteristic of the Hebrew poets who literally found a different rhythm and tone to declare God’s presence in the world. Through the cadences of poetry and vivid imagery Joel offered a memorable call to repentance: “Blow the trumpet in Zion/sound the alarm on my holy mountain!” (2.1)
The occasion for alarm was a plague of locusts descending upon the country that the prophet interpreted as a foreshadowing of divine judgment (Chapter 1). Joel saw in the locusts the certainty that “the day of the Lord is coming, it is near” (2.1).
In response to approaching judgment the poet-prophet taps out a hopeful challenge: “return to me with all your heart/with fasting, with weeping, with mourning;/rend your hearts and not your clothing” (2.12 and 13a). And, again, “Blow the trumpet in Zion/sanctify a fast/call a solemn assembly/gather the people” (2.15). The rhythm is strong. The tone is demanding.
The “heart” theme continues in the psalm for Ash Wednesday. The Church has identified seven Psalms as “penitential Psalms.” Among them Psalm 51 is the best known. (The others are 6, 32, 38, 102, 130, and 143).
Like Joel, the psalmist has an inward focus: “The sacrifice acceptable to God is a broken spirit / a broken and contrite heart, O God, you will not despise” (17). The best known lines of the best known penitential Psalm underscore the “heart” theme. “Create in me a clean heart, O God/and put a new and right spirit within me/Do not cast me away from your presence/and do not take your holy spirit from me” (10-11).
Hidden among the rich images of the Psalm is a simple plea worthy of Ash Wednesday, the first day of long journey toward a changed and changing life. The psalmist prays, “teach me wisdom in my secret heart” (6). In line with the Prophet, the Psalm presents a strong rhythm and a demanding tone for the journey before us.
The plea of the psalmist gets amplified in the epistle. Paul’s words to the Corinthians are direct: “Be reconciled to God” (2 Cor 5.20).
Scholars identify 2 Corinthians 1–9 as “the mature letter” that Paul wrote to his friends. Gone are the chastisements for immaturity found in 1 Corinthians. Gone are the indictments against the Corinthians for their childish behaviors ranging from petty property squabbles (1 Cor 6) to cliquish practices at the supper of the Lord (1 Cor 11), to the exhibitionist tendencies of glossolalia (1 Cor 12–14).
Now Paul seeks partnership with the Corinthians. “We work together with him” (6.1), he writes. And he continues, “We urge you not to accept the grace of God in vain” (6.1).
The Lenten path, beginning on Ash Wednesday, is a path filled with the promises of maturity. The heart themes of the prophet and psalmist, focused by the hope for maturity in the epistle present a strong rhythm and a demanding tone for the journey before us.
Finally we come to the Gospel. Matthew’s Jesus prevents our developing a smugness about the piety of practice. “Beware of practicing your piety before others in order to be seen by them” (6.1) Jesus cautions. The focus is the “secret” piety that is rewarded in secret (6.4, 6.6, and 6.18).
The “wisdom in my secret heart” (Ps 51.6) now bears fruit as we begin our Lenten journey. The practice of piety is not for show. The piety of practice, however, is about striving for transformation. “Return to me with all your heart” (Joel 2.12) the prophet pleads. “Create in me a clean heart” (Ps 51.10) and “teach me wisdom in my secret heart” (Ps 51.6). Do not “accept the grace of God in vain” (2 Cor 6.1) the Apostle implores.
Giving alms, praying, and fasting are the expected practices of the followers of the Christ. In the Sermon on the Mount in Matthew Jesus says when you give alms, when you pray, and when you fast. The Lenten path is about practicing spiritual disciplines, this season and the seasons to come.
It’s all about the heart. Ash Wednesday and Lent are about responding to the rhythm and tone of the heart, the beat of a fasting heart eager to be transformed by the promises of the prophet, the psalm, the epistle, and the Gospel.
Richard F. Wilson is Columbus Roberts Professor of Theology and Chair of the Roberts Department of Christianity at Mercer University in Macon, Ga.