With the arrival of Ash Wednesday our liturgical calendar begins the onset of the Season of Lent and our journey of a period of meditation, reflection, and penitence culminating in 40 days with the glorious celebration of Easter. None of this comes as news to parishioners of St. Mary’s parish. We are well versed in the permutations of the liturgical seasons and their unique spiritual characteristics and celebrations. However, Lent can often present a challenge when determining how to meaningfully observe the ascetic disciplines it calls for of, among others, meditation, reflection, and penitence. In 1930 T.S. Eliot (1888-1965) published the poem Ash-Wednesday (note the hyphen), which deals with the struggle that ensues when one lacking in faith in the past strives to move toward God. Already widely acknowledged as perhaps the foremost English language poet at that time (and eventual Nobel Laureate) with works such as: The Wasteland, The Hollow Men, The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock, Eliot’s Ash-Wednesday was seen by many as his conversion poem. In any event, to quote: “It is a poem about the difficulty of religious belief and concerned with personal salvation in an age of uncertainty. In Ash-Wednesday Eliot’s poetic persona, one who has lacked faith in the past, has somehow found the courage, through spiritual exhaustion, to seek faith.” Reading and meditating on Ash-Wednesday (which can be accessed on the Internet) during Lent could be a new and renewing way of, like Eliot, preparation for greeting our risen Lord at Easter.
What is another resource to turn to for observing a holy Lent? Quite naturally the answer is Holy Scripture and the words of Jesus Christ. Concerning fasting: “…whenever you fast, do not look dismal, like the hypocrites, for they disfigure their faces so as to show others they are fasting…when you fast, put oil on your head and wash your face, so that your fasting may not be seen by others but by your Father who is in secret…” (Matthew 16:18). Regarding prayer: “…whenever you pray, do not be like the hypocrites, for they love to stand and pray in the synagogues and at the street corners, so they may be seen by others…but whenever you pray, go to your room and shut the door and pray to your Father who is in secret…” (Matthew 6:5-6). And as to alms giving: “…whenever you give alms, do not sound a trumpet before you, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and in the streets…when you give alms, do not let left hand know what your right hand is doing so that your alms may be done in secret…” (Matthew 6:2-4). All three of these imperatives from the Lord end with: “…your Father who sees in secret will reward you.” Consequently, the Season of Lent offers a unique opportunity for us to seek a more personal relationship with Jesus Christ, drawing upon the power of the Holy Spirit for the journey. And ultimately God the Father, “in secret”, is aware of the investment it takes; and because of our faith, we know the rewards are commensurate with our effort. The question, then, is: Can you keep a secret?