Well, it’s a confusing day for Christians, today, being both Ash Wednesday and St. Valentine’s Day. Some people might be geared up for a valentine’s day date, but it’s also the beginning of Lent. The worship service for this day begins with the following address:
Dear People of God: The first Christians observed with great devotion the days of our Lord’s passion and resurrection, and it became the custom of the Church to prepare for them by a season of penitence and fasting. This season of Lent provided a time in which converts to the faith were prepared for Holy Baptism. It was also a time when those who, because of notorious sins, had been separated from the body of the faithful, were reconciled by penitence and forgiveness, and restored to the fellowship of the Church. In this manner, the whole congregation was put in mind of the message of pardon and absolution set forth in the Gospel of our Savior, and of the need that all Christians continually have to renew our repentance and faith.
I invite you, therefore, in the name of the Church, to the observance of a holy Lent: by self-examination and repentance; by prayer, fasting, and alms-giving; and by reading and meditating on God’s holy Word.
And to make a right beginning, let us now pray for grace, that we may faithfully keep this Lent.
What we would go on to hear from the Gospels is excerpts from Matthew 6, wherein we learn about what to do “when you fast,” and so on. On the surface level, this reading is appointed because it teaches us about the Lenten disciplines we are now undertaking. But on a deeper level this shows us not just practical instructions and snippets of wisdom – for if that were all there is to it then this would be Law, no better than the covenant of Moses – but rather that this is also Gospel. It shows us that there is dignity in self-denial. We don’t have to make a big show of our religious piety because there is a blessedness intrinsic to those spiritual disciplines. “Blessed are the poor in spirit,” Jesus taught earlier in the same sermon, “for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.”
And Jesus, of course, would go on to endure the most extreme of spiritual disciplines: imprisonment, trial, torture, and death. When we are under disciplines, be it self-imposed or a result of other circumstances, we have a blessed opportunity to carry our cross as Jesus carried his. It isn’t magical, or automatic, of course; it does take an act of the will to use our self-discipline or other sufferings to identify with Christ and endeavor to follow in his footsteps. And we inevitably have elements of selfishness dogging us – sometimes we want to feel sorry for ourselves, or we want to invokes others to pity or to envy of our great patience and devotion.
In many cases that is itself the true spiritual discipline: learning to bear our lot with humility, not seeking temporal rewards for spiritual endeavors.
May this holy season of Lent be a time of spiritual refreshment for you, both in the sobering reality of our sin and our need for Christ, and in the hope-filled encouragement that Christ has already undergone the greatest of temptations and sufferings on our behalf, that the struggles of our lives also now have meaning, purpose, and the blessed fruit of eternal life with God. To him be all the glory; amen.