Thoughts at the Beginning of Lent 2021

Matthew 6:1-6, 19-21

These are strange times. It is as if Mother Nature wanted to remind us yet again with these winter storms that we are not in control—as if we had not already learned that lesson a hundredfold since Ash Wednesday last year. It seems as if we have been in a perpetual Lenten season for almost a year. It’s enough to wear even the most faithful of us to a frazzle as my daddy would say.

The observance of Lent is a call to a deeper faithfulness.

What is Ash Wednesday if not a reminder of our own humanity and the acknowledgement that we will all face the limits of life, one day coming face to face with our own frailty.

We’ve seen that frailty all around us. On March 13 a year ago, my mother crossed over to the church triumphant just fifteen months after my father’s death. Who of us has not known of a friend or a neighbor—a family member or a coworker who has succumbed to Covid-19? It reminds me of the words from our service of Death and Resurrection…in life we are in death.

Caught between the light of Epiphany and Easter we come to observe this Lenten season. “Lent is a time to stand against the strings someone else pulls,” Howard Thurman once said.

It is a time to look within, to determine that which I want to relinquish and that to which I want to give myself.  This is, finally, the Lenten question. 

In the words of Parker Palmer, “What can you not, not give yourself to?”

The corporate nature of our world is rooted in effectiveness. Stephen Covey captured our attention 25 years ago with his book, The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People. I took the course. I got the big notebook.  “Begin with the end in mind.”

And yet, what Covey did not ask was, what does it mean to be faithful?  Is the Lenten journey one of effectiveness or one of faithfulness?  Is your walk with Jesus one seeking to get results or is it one of faithfulness?  In the end, with God, there are no final results.

St. Benedict said, “Daily keep death before your eyes.”  This, above all, is the Lenten call. If we follow the lectionary readings for the season of Lent, our journey will take us along familiar roads. The Gospel readings for Lent place us within the heart of Jesus’ ministry. There is no avoiding the steps Jesus walked on our behalf. Pay close attention. Lent is not a time to have an egocentric posture about your faith journey.  

In fact, in Gospel reading for Ash Wednesday is taken from Matthew 6, right in the heart of the Sermon on the Mount.

Jesus begins in 6:1 with a warning:  Beware.

“Beware of practicing your piety before others in order to be seen by them.”

“Don’t sound a trumpet when you give alms.”

“When you pray, go to your room and shut the door. God will see you and hear you.”

Then Jesus teaches us how to pray… my Catholic friends refer to this as the “Our Father.”

We say “The Lord’s Prayer.” 

In verse 16, Jesus says…oh yes… “and when you fast…don’t look so dismal.”

Lynn and I have been doing the intermittent fasting thing…and I can tell you, it’s easy to look dismal.

Finally, in verse 19—Jesus says, “Do not store up treasures on earth…but store up treasures in heaven…for where your treasure is…there will your heart be also.”

For me, beginning this Lenten journey is an examination of heart.  I pray with the Psalmist, “Create in me a clean heart, O God, and renew a right spirit within me.”

Before the Christian walk can be a journey outward, it is a journey inward. Yet, often, we fall into the category against which Jesus is teaching here in the Sermon on the Mount.

We resemble Paul’s words in Romans 7, “The very good I would do I do not do.”  In short, we are more concerned about how we appear than about who we are.

Let me illustrate with a story from the Jewish Talmud.

There is an old Hasidic tale about three pious Jews who decided to travel to a distant city to spend the high holy days with a famous rabbi. They set out on their journey, without food or money, intending to walk the entire way.

Several days into the journey, weak from hunger and still a long way from their destination, they knew they had made a mistake and they must do something. They came up with a plan. They decided that one of them would disguise himself as a rabbi. That way, when they came to the next village, the people would offer them food, honored to have a rabbi visit their town. None of the three, being pious, wished to be the deceitful one, so they drew straws, and the unlucky one who drew the short straw had to don the clothing of a rabbi. Another dressed as his assistant.

When they drew near to the next village, they were greeted with excited cries of joy, “A rabbi is coming! A rabbi is coming!” Escorted with great ceremony to the local inn, the hungry threesome was treated to a delicious meal.

When the meal was done, however, the innkeeper approached the “rabbi” and spoke with great sorrow. “Rabbi, you must pray for my son,” he said. “He is dying and the doctors have given up hope. But the Holy One, blessed be his name, may respond to our prayers.”

The counterfeit rabbi looked desperately to his friends for help. They motioned for him to go with the innkeeper to his son’s bedside. They had begun this hypocritical game, and now there was no choice but to keep on playing the game. The mock rabbi accompanied the distraught father to his son’s sick bed.

That night, the three travelers slept fitfully. They were eager to get out of town before their deception was discovered. In the morning, the innkeeper, still hoping for a miracle and grateful for the prayer of this visiting “rabbi,” sent the party off with the loan of a carriage and a team of horses.

They left the village and traveled to the great city where they spent magnificent holy days under the spell of the famous rabbi. His teaching of the Torah carried their spirits to the very vault of heaven. But too soon, the holy days were at an end, and the three companions had to go back home through the same village to return the borrowed carriage and horses.

Terrified, the mock rabbi resumed his disguise; his heart was in his throat as they approached the village, especially when he saw the innkeeper running toward them, waving his arms furiously. But to the pretender’s delight and surprise, the innkeeper embraced him with joy, exclaiming, “Thank you, rabbi. Only one hour after you left our village, my son arose from his bed well and strong. The doctors were amazed, but my son lives, and I am grateful for your faithful prayer.”

The two companions looked with astonishment at their phony “rabbi” companion. What had happened? Had his prayer healed the boy? Was he truly a rabbi all along, without telling them? When they were alone, they turned on him with their questions. “What had he done at the boy’s death bed?” they demanded to know.

He replied that he had stood at the boy’s side in silence and then began to lift his thought to heaven: “Master of the universe, please; this father and son should not be punished because they think I am a rabbi. What am I? I am nothing! A pretender! If this child dies, his father will think a rabbi can do nothing. So, Master of the universe, not because of me, but because of his father and his faith, can it hurt that his son would be healed?”

The Hasidim tell this story because of its profound insight into all of us. We are all pretenders, fall short of what God’s desire of us is.

My prayer for myself and for you is that this Lenten season, we remove the masks we hide behind. Take the inward, healing, cleansing journey and allow God’s gracious, merciful, and redemptive work to begin in us.

So that…by Easter Sunday, God will have renewed our spirits by the transforming of our minds.

I look forward to the journey with you.

Bill McAlilly