Grace and peace to you from God, who is always calling us nearer.
Tomorrow is the beginning of the season of Lent. The word “Lent” is derived from “lengthen,” for the lengthening days of spring. Lent is forty days of prayer and repentance prior to Easter, in preparation for being made new in the mystery of resurrection. It’s a kind of dying in preparation for being raised to new life. The 40 days of Lent recall biblical stories like Israel’s 40 years of wandering in the Exodus, Noah’s 40 days on the ark, and most of all Jesus’ 40 days in the wilderness in preparation for his ministry. The 40 days don’t include Sundays, which are “little Easters,” celebrations of the resurrection. (By the way— the date for Easter changes every year because, with Passover, it’s based on a lunar date: Good Friday is always the first Friday after the first full moon of spring.)
Lent begins on Ash Wednesday. The ashes are a symbol both of our mortality and also of repentance. We’ll hold an Ash Wednesday service at 7 p.m.
Lent is traditionally a time of prayer and fasting. Historically, foods eaten in Lent didn’t include fats, sugar and eggs. So the day before Lent was a day to use up all those foods—hence the name “Fat Tuesday,” and the tradition of eating pancakes. We’ll hold a Pancake Supper tonight at 6. Everyone is invited! It’s also a day to get all the nasty stuff out of our systems, hence the traditions of Carnival and Mardi Gras, when we party a little too hard.
Fasting is not self-punishment, or taking on suffering, or “doing something hard for God.” It’s a practice of re-ordering what we focus on, allowing God to transform our desires. We set aside our hunger for food and give attention to our hunger for God. We let our deepest concern be for something beyond our own comfort or even well-being. Because fasting affects us so intimately it invites us to enter a new consciousness. It’s a form of prayer.
Prayer for some people is a formality; for some it’s awkward, like speaking a foreign language. The thing is, it’s not really “thinking,” which challenges our desire to be rational and in control, so in some ways it is a foreign language. But it’s essential, like breathing for the soul.
Prayer is not the recitation of eloquent speeches to God. When you pray you don’t need to “know what to say.” You don’t even need to say anything. Prayer is simply being with God, putting ourselves in God’s hands, paying attention to God. Sometimes the best prayer is just feeling what we’re feeling, or expressing what’s in our hearts, however confused or messed up that may be. Sometimes it’s stopping to notice what’s in our hearts. Sometimes it’s wondering, and waiting for whatever we hear. Sometimes our own words are best; sometimes it helps to use another’s. Mostly there are no words at all. Prayer is just being, and being attentively.
I invite you to join me in deepening your prayer life prayer this Lent. I invite everyone at St. Matthew’s to join in a prayer covenant: to pray for a total of at least four hours (in addition to Sunday worship) during the 40 days of Lent ―that’s an average of six minutes a day. During Lent we’re offering a lot of ways to be in prayer, alone and together. Join us in practicing our faith!