We've worked into the liturgical year these seasons of preparation for the major days on our calendar: Christmas has Advent and Easter has Lent. While there isn't much solemn about the weeks leading up to our celebration of the birth of Christ, that's not so true with Lent. We remember Christ's forty days of fasting and praying in the wilderness; forty days of being forged in the desert for the sacrifice he would undergo for our salvation. We remember Lent's pinnacle, Holy Week; a week which began for him with cheering crowds and ended in his execution. As followers of Christ, Lent is a celebration of sacrifice and self-denial. We meditate on Christ's work for us by, for a season, taking on disciplines that might focus us on that work. Lent is sober and quiet. Lent is uncomfortable on purpose. Lent is a season of intentional spiritual growth... and on the eve of this season we party like it's the last chance we'll ever get!
Fat Tuesday. Shrove Tuesday. Mardi Gras. Whatever you call it you have to admit it sends a mixed message. My guess is that those who celebrate Mardi Gras are not necessarily the same people who clelebrate Lent. Certainly the excesses of Ash Wednesday-Eve are imbibed with a great degree of variation: from drunken debauchery to having pancakes for dinner. But it does make me question if we really understand Lent. Who do we think Lent is for? Are we only seeking in our Lenten disciplines to impress God? Do we delude ourselves into thinking that God notices only the sacrifices we make and never the excesses?
King David knew a thing or two about both a life of excess (when we pretend that God's not watching) and about spending time in the wilderness (when we truly begin to know the heart of God). When he was caught in one such moment of excess and then driven by God into a "wilderness time," he came out of that experience to write Psalm 51 (a familliar psalm to those who know the Lenten journey). Here we see the inconsistency of our faith at its very best. By anyone's measure of the word, David had sinned. And yet he clearly knows the heart of God. He writes:
O Lord, open my lips and my mouth will declare your praise.Here is David, the fornicating murderer. He cannot hide who he is. Real experiences of God will lay you bare like that. But they also illuminate God as well. It is in this naked honesty that he finds, not simply his sinfulness, but God's true heart. He finds that God doesn't want his stuff, God wants David. God doesn't want his pain (though the process might sting a bit), God wants David. God doesn't want the pretense of purity, God wants David. It is the heart that God is after, and although our outward practices might facilitate that end, if they do not turn out hearts toward God's, they are not really worth doing.
For you have no delight in sacrifice;
if I were to give a burnt offering, you would not be pleased.
The sacrifice acceptable to God is a broken spirit;
a broken and contrite heart, O God, you will not despise.
(Psalm 51:15-17, NRSV)
Please note that I'm not trying to discourage you from any Lenten practice; quite the opposite. Let's just start by honestly recognizing our inconsistencies in the light of God's constant love, shown to us in Christ. By all means, make your fasts, read your Bible, devote yourselves to prayer, commit yourselves to service; but let us also remember that it's you that God is after. May this Lenten season, by whatever ways we celebrate it, help us to truly give our hearts to God.