By Pierre W. Whalon
Today is no feast, for sure. It is a fast, one of two obligatory fast days for Episcopalians, the other being Good Friday, of course. How you observe your fast is up to you. Many people choose to “give something up” for Lent, beginning today. That is abstinence, not fasting. Fasting is the reduction of food consumed.
The point is, either way, to mark a difference in our usual routine. This difference is to remind us to look inward, in toward the place we call “I.” When I spend time there, with the Unholy Trinity — me, myself, and I — I rapidly become aware of how mercurial a creature I am. Moods change like the clouds crossing the sky. I find it hard to stay focused on what I want to be, because it is so easy to try to justify myself to myself. It is very easy to deceive myself, to ignore the quiet voice of what is real versus what I want to be real.
Recently I’ve been reading about a lot of new research on the mind/brain connection. Guess what researchers are finding out? We are very good at deceiving ourselves. Had they read Scripture, or done some Lenten self-examination, this news would not be surprising.
The lesson from Isaiah today, which was also appointed for the Fifth Sunday after the Epiphany last month, is about the people of God kidding themselves: “day after day they seek me and delight to know my ways, as if they were a nation that practiced righteousness and did not forsake the ordinance of their God.”
The people reply that they keep on fasting and humbling themselves, but God takes no notice.
Why should God notice their acts of devotion and worship, when their acts give the lie to their piety? Why should God notice ours, for that matter? Are we fooling ourselves like the Israelites, going to church to pray and receive comfort, only to negate everything we’ve done on Sunday by the things we do and say — or refuse to do or say — on Monday?
As I said, we are good at self-deception.
The Lord adds, according to Isaiah: “Is not this the fast that I choose: to loose the bonds of injustice, to undo the thongs of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free, and to break every yoke? Is it not to share your bread with the hungry, and bring the homeless poor into your house; when you see the naked, to cover them, and not to hide yourself from your own kin?”
So what God wants is good works, right? Fight injustice! Free the oppressed! Feed the hungry, clothe the naked, shelter the homeless, and accept the members of your family.
But the ability to fool ourselves can turn these good things into new ways of trying to please God. If Sunday worship doesn’t make us OK, then surely doing good will. Don’t I get points in heaven for all the good I do? You can make Jesus’ saying to store up treasure in heaven sound just like this.
But nothing we can do or not do, nothing we can say or not say, can make us look better in God’s eyes than we are today. It would be comforting if we could! But if we could influence God either way, that would be idolatrous. In fact, our sacraments would then literally be magic rituals, which they most emphatically are not.
There is a difference between us and Isaiah’s people. And that difference is Jesus Christ. Isn’t that why we are here today?
In Christ, we have already been accepted as we are. While we were still his enemies, Christ died for us, as Paul explained to the Christians in Rome (5:8,10). No prayer, no good works, can make God choose us, listen to us, do as we ask. In Christ we have been adopted as God’s children, before we could even choose to accept.
What we can choose to do is to allow ourselves to be compared to Christ. In the first instance, that means judgment. It is not that he condemns us — “neither do I condemn you,” he said to the woman caught in adultery. No, we do the judging, we cannot stand the comparison. It is like being an average cellist and going to a concert by Yo-Yo Ma. You know enough about playing the instrument that you hear how a cello really ought to sound, and it hurts. Meeting Jesus cuts through all our self-deception, all the evasions and lies that we tell ourselves, and shows us who we really are, in our own eyes.
This is one thing that Lent is designed to help us do, to take a look inside to see who we are now. The other work of Lent is not sitting around with our ashes on our head, bemoaning ourselves. God knows me better than I know myself. God knows you too. And you and I are still accepted.
We’re not just accepted but enlisted. For the work of God the Holy Spirit is not merely to push us to judge ourselves and find us wanting, but to realize once again how incredible the gift of God in our lives really is. It is the gift to become fully human, as Christ is the first true human. The first fully human being has a body on earth, and you and I are parts of that body.
The more we allow ourselves to shed our false lives and allow this life to grow in us, we will find ourselves worshiping as we ought: regular loving communication between you and God. Not trying to get right with God with magic formulas or do-gooding, trying to manipulate the universe in your favor. And from this authentic worship, this connection between Heaven and Earth, springs changed people. People who are going to work together for the hungry, the poor, the sick and homeless and lonely, not because we want to make God like us, or justify ourselves in our own eyes, but simply because that’s what real humans do.
But it’s more than that. There is a justly famous saying of Teresa of Avila that says, “Christ has no hands but yours on this earth, no feet but yours, no eyes or mouth but yours.” So as our behavior begins to change, what is actually happening is that we are becoming more and more like Christ.
We are doing Christ’s work now, just as he said: “you will do the work that I do, and in fact, greater works than these you will do” (John 14:12).
So what did Jesus do? The most important work he did was forgiveness. Think of all the stories you know of his forgiveness, including forgiving his executioners and the thieves crucified with him. And of course, he was on the cross so that we could be accepted, forgiven, just as we are now.
So we are enlisted in forgiving, to be people who really can. But it is so hard! There are some things done to us, or that we have done, that we cannot imagine forgiving. But nevertheless we must. For we ask God very routinely to “forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us.” What! Forgive me in the exact same way I forgive others? Lord have mercy!
This is the work of a lifetime. Indeed, you may need decades really to forgive someone, even if that someone is yourself. And it is something we learn by doing. A Methodist scholar named Gregory Jones has written a book about what he calls “The Craft of Forgiveness.” (The title is Embodying Forgiveness.) To forgive is a craft, a métier. So if you find it hard to forgive, take heart. It takes time and effort to learn how. But still, forgive others as you want God to forgive you.
Two other works that Jesus did that we are also enlisted in continuing. The first is healing. Jesus went about healing people both physically and spiritually, and we are called to do the same. Now, my friends, I want you to know that I have witnessed miraculous healings, medically certified as impossible. Terminal cancers that disappear overnight. Heart disease, too. I just don’t believe in calling the media … or the Vatican. These healings do not happen often, in my experience. Neither does such healing last, because we all die in the end, as today’s ashes remind us. All the people Jesus healed died.
But there is one infallible, miraculous healing that each of us will experience, and that is the Resurrection. In the larger life that even now is opening for you and me, all pain, suffering, even death itself, is healed forever, and transformed into something greater than before. The Good News that you and I have been accepted, forgiven, and enlisted to become truly human is a mighty word of healing. Do not be afraid to ask for it, and do not fear to tell people you know that there is healing available: real, permanent healing.
Finally, Jesus raised the dead. You and I are enlisted in this work, which is an extension of healing. Now in my life I have never heard of anyone being raised from the dead, as Lazarus was. Our work of raising the dead is not so dramatic, but it is just as critical. You see, there are plenty of people around us who have lost hope for themselves. Perhaps someone here today feels that he or she is hopeless, that there is no future other than what is even worse than today.
Now if you want to kill someone, you don’t need a weapon. Just take away their hope. A person without hope is the walking dead. The zombies have always been among us. But we have the cure for the living death of hopelessness. Just as we are healers, we are also in the resurrection business. For what we are living into is above all the future that belongs, absolutely and without question, to God. And that means we have real lasting hope, a hope that shall not let us down, ever. That will bring people out of their graves!
So I bid you a good Lent, to find within yourselves not only the same old trinity of me, myself, and I, but also the light of the Holy Trinity, the hope of glory, the healing of forgiveness, and the grace to change.
The Rt. Rev. Pierre Whalon is the former Bishop in Charge of the Convocation of Episcopal Churches in Europe.