Betsy Child’s piece in First Things on Ash Wednesday warns of the very real pitfalls that come with making Lent such public practice. She believe that the popularization of this religious season steals something of it’s value. Quoting from Matthew, whirring Jesus instructs is followers to keep their fasts to themselves, making it a private matter.
“Fasting should be a secret season of repentance,” she writes “not a public declaration of abstention.”
And as much as I resonate with her warning (particularly as a pastor), I wonder if there isn’t room for both kinds of expression – Lent as something private and within me as well as something public.
The culture to which Jesus directed that instruction was one in which folks won social points for being ardently committed to their faith. Jesus gives the same instruction regarding prayer, suggesting that the man who prays humbly and quietly is heard by God, whereas the man who makes a show of his prayer, is not.
Particularly among those in my religious tribe, folks have a very different take on religion. Many people whose religious lives I’m somewhat familiar with are something between reticent and terrified to publicly express their faith in Jesus. And among the many the reasons they feel this way (some good and some bad) is the dark cloud of wondering if our religious practice makes any difference. I, for one, think it does and I spend a good amount of my time opening doors for the faithful (and those who aren’t) to see what difference the Way of Jesus makes. Most of the popularized, public expressions of Lent I’m familiar with are similar to Blood:Water’s Save A Drink, Save A Life campaign. A work in which anyone can take part, and one that clearly does make a difference.
I believe the Christian tradition, and particularly the Christian discipline of prayer, has a great deal to offer the world outside our tradition. I don’t believe prayer is an activity isolated to religious folks. Instead, I believe prayer is a primally human activity. We rejoice, we cry out, we thank, we want… we do any number of things that draw us and point us beyond ourselves. Prayer, as I understand it, is an acknowledgement and intentional practice of that activity. I think the Christian tradition can offer language and form to this primal human function. And I think we can do so without raising a flag of colonization or ownership.
The popularization of Lent opens the door for folks outside the Christian tradition to “taste and see” as it were. And I think that, if I’m doing the inner-work Lent also requires of me, I can open that door without making a show of it.