So we once again find ourselves at the beginning of Lent, this Day of Ashes on which we are marked with a sign of death, grief, and penance, and encouraged to enter into a time of fasting, a time of “giving up.” What are you giving up for Lent? We have all heard that question; we have probably asked it of others.
Noting the coincidence of Ash Wednesday and Valentine’s Day (something that apparently hasn’t happened for more than 70 years), Episcopal priest and cartoonist Jay Sidebotham recently offered some combined greeting cards for the day. Making light of the “giving up” aspect of Lent, one of Sidebotham’s mock cards reads:
Roses are red;
Violets are blue;
Lent is beginning;
No chocolate for you!
When we are baptized, the sign of the cross is made on our foreheads with holy oil and the words, “You are sealed by the Holy Spirit in baptism and marked as Christ’s own forever.” When children not yet admitted to Communion come to the communion rail, I mark their foreheads with a cross which, I remind them, “is the sign of God’s love for” them. But today we are marked with cross of ashes and reminded not of rebirth, nor of Christ’s claim on our lives, nor of God’s love for us, but of death: “Remember that you are dust and to dust you will return.”
As the sign of the cross is made on our heads, the vertical stroke is made first, like the letter “I”, then the horizontal stroke crosses out the “I”. This reminds us to let go of ego during this time of penance and preparation. This is what the Lenten fast, the “giving up” part of Lent, is all about.
A few years ago, I read an essay by the Irish poet (I say “Irish poet” but she is really an American living for many years in Ireland) Christine Paintner in which she listed some ideas for “fasting” in ways that aid one in that letting go. Paintner wrote:
This season I am being invited to fast from things like “ego-grasping” and noticing when I so desperately want to be in control, and then yielding myself to a greater wisdom than my own.
I am called to fast from being strong and always trying to hold it all together, and instead embrace the profound grace that comes through my vulnerability and tenderness, to allow a great softening this season.
I am called to fast from anxiety and the endless torrent of thoughts which rise up in my mind to paralyze me with fear of the future, and enter into the radical trust in the abundance at the heart of things, rather than scarcity.
I am called to fast from speed and rushing through my life, causing me to miss the grace shimmering right here in this holy pause.
I am called to fast from multitasking and the destructive energy of inattentiveness to any one thing, so that I get many things done, but none of them well, and none of them nourishing to me. Instead my practice will become a beholding of each thing, each person, each moment.
I am called to fast from endless list-making and too many deadlines, and enter into the quiet and listen for what is ripening and unfolding, what is ready to be born.
I am called to fast from certainty and trust in the great mystery of things.
And then perhaps, I will arrive at Easter and realize those things from which I have fasted I no longer need to take back on again. I will experience a different kind of rising.
As the horizontal strokes wipes away the “I” of the first, the vertical stroke, let the discipline of Lent wipe away your own “ego-grasping,” your own need for certainty and control; let this season be for you, also, “a great softening” so that you arrive at Easter no longer needing to take back some the things you are giving up.
But this season of “giving up” is also a season of “taking up.” Less often (if ever) are we asked, “What are you taking up for Lent?” This mark on our foreheads, however, this cross of ashes is also, one might note, a plus-sign . . . and as that sign of addition, it is a reminder of this aspect of Lent, this aspect of “taking up” as well as of “giving up.”
The point of “giving something up” is to make room in our lives for something else. We are encouraged to give up those things that interfere with our relationship with God so that we make room for and take up those things that enhance our relationship with God. Our “giving up” is meant to set us free . . . free from those things that distract us, those things that hamper us, those things that enslave us. But freedom is only freedom if it is more than “freedom from” something. It is only freedom when it is also “freedom for” something. And from the Christian perspective, that “something” is God. In his catholic epistle, St. James reminds us to “rid [ourselves] of all sordidness and rank growth of wickedness” (that’s the “giving up” side of Lent) so that we may “welcome with meekness the implanted word that has the power to save [our] souls” (that’s the “taking up” aspect). James goes on to encourage us:
Be doers of the word, and not merely hearers who deceive themselves. For if any are hearers of the word and not doers, they are like those who look at themselves in a mirror; for they look at themselves and, on going away, immediately forget what they were like. But those who look into the perfect law, the law of liberty, and persevere, being not hearers who forget but doers who act—they will be blessed in their doing.
One of our collects in the Daily Office of Morning Prayer reminds us that “to know [God] is eternal life and to serve [God] is perfect freedom.” Lent is not only the time of “freedom from;” it is the time of “freedom for,” liberating us to serve God, to be doers of the word, and to be blessed in the doing.
Roses are red;
Violets are blue;
Lent is for giving up,
And for taking up, too.
What are you taking up for Lent?
This homily was offered by the Rev. Dr. C. Eric Funston on Ash Wednesday, February 14, 2018, to the people of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Medina, Ohio, where Fr. Funston is rector.
(The lessons for the service are Isaiah 58:1-12; Psalm 103; 2 Corinthians 5:20b-6:10; and St. Matthew 6:1-6,16-21. These lessons can be read at The Lectionary Page.)
 Church Pension Group wall calendar for February 2018 (Return to text)
 The Book of Common Prayer 1979, Holy Baptism, page 308 (Return to text)
 The Book of Common Prayer 1979, Ash Wednesday, page 265 (Return to text)
 James 1:21 (Return to text)
 James 1:22-25 (Return to text)
 The Book of Common Prayer 1979, A Collect for Peace, page 99 (Return to text)