Many years ago, in a small Episcopal mission church, we celebrated Shrove Tuesday with pancakes, fresh deep fried donuts, games, and general silliness, until about a minute before midnight. The Vicar stood up, and we all got quiet. “The Lord be with you.” And we prayed. We got very silent, until someone, probably one of our several seminarians, said, “Happy Lent” and we laughed, until some of us cried. And we silently filed out, warmed by the fellowship, and by the deep knowledge that without walking with Jesus, the resurrection and reconciliation in the New Covenant, our Salvation, would not come in our hearts. We were ready.
Here it is, for me Feb. 13, Shrove Tuesday, 2018, for you when this appears, Feb. 19th, and I am home from our Shrove Tuesday. We ate, celebrated, and then we lit the fire and burned the palms from last year to make our ashes. We also buried clay crosses in the hot coals, which will fire over night, which we will collect and share to keep in our pockets to remember who we are and what great gift was given as we walk with Jesus to the cross. “You light the fire that never burns away.”
The lectionary readings for the First Monday in Lent appear to be about rules, doing things, remembering to do things. And my favorite psalm, Psalm 19, without the paean to the Glory of God in Creation, but diving right in to teaching righteousness. The collect for the day says, “Almighty and everlasting God, mercifully increase in us your gifts of holy discipline, in almsgiving, prayer, and fasting; that our lives may be directed to the fulfilling of your most gracious will; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.”
It is not meant to make us comfortable. But it is also not meant for us to unduly punish ourselves. That can be a kind of pious idolatry. We are invited to share in discipline, the kind that Jesus used to ponder his human life, to hear and obey his Father. Ponder, to consider, perhaps to wrestle, struggle with, perhaps discern. Did Jesus ponder, in his earthly ministry, in the desert, on a mountain, in a garden? That is holy discipline. That used to be secularized by giving up chocolate (or in those days, smoking). That is not holy discipline. That is a diet. Holy discipline is almsgiving until it hurts, divesting ourselves of the earthly in our incarnate lives, as we reach for the numinous, ineffable Godhead. Holy discipline is praying, regularly, from the Morning and Evening Offices, from a book of seasonal prayers, for some regularized period of praise, confession, and intercession for others as well as ourselves, for thanksgiving. Holy discipline is fasting, being aware of the abundance of God’s Holy Table, and taking less so that we can be filled with gratitude for what we take, so that others may have more. It is being aware, and heeding the will of God.
Leviticus (19:1–2, 11–18) states the theme clearly. A string of thou-shalt-not injunctions, ending with, “I am the Lord.” While some of the six hundred or so Mosaic laws seem silly or gratuitous, this set is a sound foundation for a holy and united people. Do not steal, cheat, render unjust judgment, or favor the powerful. It goes on. Fear your God. For he is the Lord. Laws, yes, but laws that could have come from Jesus’ teaching, and when enflamed by the Holy Spirit are laws of the heart, laws that will bind the people of God, the Body of Christ. That is a discipline for Lent. Mind what you do, thinking about how it affects your neighbor, that neighbor for whom we confess weekly or daily that we have not loved with our whole hearts, as we have not loved God with our whole hearts. Lent isn’t meant to be easy. It is meant to convert the heart. It is meant to hurt if we really grow in love for Jesus in his suffering, his obedience to God his Father, and through him ours. Dig deep. God’s laws are just, God’s commandments are just, God is just, and if the servant is in a right relationship with God, fearing God, obeying God, the servant will be filled with joy.
This is not some ancient injunction for abuse. We get in our own way, putting up barriers between ourselves and God. Being in right relationship with our God through the Spirit, and living with the mind of Christ, we are lifted from sin, reconciled as family with Jesus and to his Father. Walk in righteousness, not for reward, but to receive the Grace and Love freely given, which we cannot touch if we are too full of ourselves to look to God. “Who can tell how often he offends? Cleanse me from my secret faults. Above all, keep your servant from presumptuous sins; let them not get dominion over me; then shall I be whole and sound, and innocent of a great offense,” the Psalmist prays. Our secret faults. Our little hates, carelessness, jealousies, greed, desires. Our presumption that we control our lives, each other, or the world. They are God’s. A good thing to remember for Lent.
My bishop spoke to us the other day about radical reconciliation. Radical reconciliation is not just an exchange, like the horrible model of one sin for ten Hail Mary’s that still rings in my ears when I talk about confession. The bishop told the story of African women who met with ex-soldiers who sought forgiveness for killing, killing these women’s sons, husbands, fathers. At the end of the meeting, each woman adopted one of these men, and together these new families grew to know God’s mercy, true repentance, the men for their killing, the women for their hate. That is what Jesus died for. We have built a society of hate. Leviticus tells us to be fair and good. Jesus tells us that he will not recognize as family anyone who does not treat each soul as if they were looking at him, which they are. We have secret sin, and it is not what is being promulgated on news feeds, social media, and posters at rallies. We are presumptuous, and I pray God protect us from it. Cleanse us of our secret fault, of our sin of arrogance. That is the message of today’s lesson. That is the message for a good Lent, a Lent of repentance, of discipline, of love.
“Let the words of my mouth and the meditation of my
heart be acceptable in your sight,
O Lord, my strength and my redeemer.”
Dr. Dana Kramer-Rolls is a parishioner at All Souls Parish, Episcopal, Berkeley, California and earned her master’s degree and PhD from the Graduate Theological Union, Berkeley, California.