Today marks the beginning of the season we call “Lent,” an old English word which refers to the springtime lengthening of the days. What is this season all about, these forty days (not counting Sundays) during which we are to be, in some way, doing what a hymn attributed to St. Gregory the Great says: “Keep[ing] vigil with our heavenly lord in his temptation and his fast?”
A few years ago, Dr. Jonn Sentamu, the current Archbishop of York, described Lent as a time for seeking and getting to know God better. Similarly, an essay about Lent in an issue of the National Catholic Register was titled “A Season for Seeking.” I’m not sure I buy that, however. As the Roman Franciscan author Richard Rohr says, “We cannot attain the presence of God because we’re already in the presence of God. What’s absent is awareness.” Lent is not so much a time for seeking God, who is always there, as it is for becoming aware of God.
And the interesting thing is that we are encouraged to become aware of God by becoming more aware of ourselves. Yes, Jesus does say to give with one hand not letting the other know what’s happening, but this seems more an instruction to follow the Deuteronomic command to “open your hand [to one in need] … to give liberally and be ungrudging when you do so” rather than a direction to act without self-awareness.
We are to give, pray, and fast “in secret,” in the privacy of our rooms. Jesus says that by doing so, we “store up for [ourselves] treasures in heaven [and that] where [our] treasure is, there [our] heart will be also.” Interestingly, modern psychological research has shown that people who have a high level of private self-awareness tend to be more aware of their feelings and beliefs, and thus are more likely to stick to their personal values. They store up the treasure of feelings, beliefs, and values, and stick to them in and with their hearts.
Lent is a time when we metaphorically join Jesus in the desert, when we participate in his forty days of fasting and in his temptations. In our English translation of the story, we personalize the Greek word for “tempter,” eliminating a definite article and capitalizing the word; this makes us think of the Devil of later Christian poetic mythology. In the original Greek, however, there is clearly a definite article, “the satan,” the tempter; it’s a role, not a personal name. If some personalized embodiment of evil is not the tempter, who else might it have been?
“Sometimes we are devils to ourselves,” wrote William Shakespeare in the play Troilus and Cressida. We “tempt the frailty of our powers, presuming on their changeful potency.” “The devil tempts us not — ’tis we tempt him….” wrote George Eliot in her 19th Century novel Felix Holt the Radical.
When I graduated from high school, I was given the wonderful gift of a tour of Europe with my brother and sister-in-law both of whom were academics and had plans to study in Italy that summer. We flew to London, visited with some friends, and then took a ferry to Amsterdam. From there we trained to Wolfsburg, German, where they purchased a Volkswagen “Beetle” and we spent the rest of the summer driving around Europe visiting castles, cathedrals, museums, libraries, and so forth. By the end of the summer, it was all blurred together and even though I’ve returned to Europe since then, I can’t really separate my memories and be sure where I saw this painting or that sculpture or whatever.
Anyway, somewhere along the way in some museum was a painting of the Temptation of Christ –– I have no idea who the painter was –– in which the face of Satan was Jesus’ own face. Artistically, the painting was probably not very good, but from a spiritual or psychological perspective it was brilliant!
Could that artist be correct? Could it be that the temptations Jesus faced were those he put before himself? We certainly put enough temptations in front of ourselves; we are, more often than not, our own tempters. Could it be that Jesus’ tempter was his own human self? Scripture reminds us (and the Lenten preface of our Eucharistic prayer which we will offer this evening repeats) that in Jesus “we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but we have one who in every respect has been tested as we are, yet without sin.” Could it be that the Spirit drove Jesus into the wilderness to confront himself, to learn more about himself, to increase his private self-awareness as here in the Sermon on the Mount he encourages us to do?
If Lent is not a time of seeking and finding God, who is always and already present, then it must be a journey to find ourselves. Lent, it has been said, is a period of self-discovery in which we encounter the parts of ourselves we don’t want to discover. If Jesus was made to spend time in the desert to learn about himself, then such self-discovery during this season surely would be, as Gregory’s great Lenten hymn proclaims, a reminder that “though frail we be, in [God’s] own image were we made.” Lent is a time to find ourselves, a time to reorient ourselves to who we are, where we have come from, where we are going, and how we are going to get there, a time to become more self-aware of our feelings and beliefs so that we may adhere more truly to our values.
Poet Jan Richardson writes of this in her Ash Wednesday meditation entitled Rend Your Heart which begins with this admonition:
Let your heart break.
Let it crack open.
Let it fall apart
so that you can see
its secret chambers,
the hidden spaces
where you have hesitated
Your entire life
is here, inscribed whole
upon your heart’s walls….
I believe the poet describes well what Jesus was about during those forty days in the desert.
Jesus fasted, prayed, and spent his time with the wild beasts. At the end of the forty days, he left the desert and returned to Galilee where he began to teach and to call his disciples; he left the desert knowing the direction his life was to take. What can we do when we leave here with our foreheads marked with an ashen cross to experience a similar self-revelation? How can we reorient ourselves to who we are, where we have come from, where we are going, and how we are to get there?
What we can do is to engage in a Lenten discipline, a rule-of-life for these forty days. I plan to adopt a program set out several years ago by Pope John XXIII, that famous bishop of Rome who convened the Second Vatican Council. It is known as his “daily decalogue.” I plan to use it as a Lenten spiritual exercise to be renewed and lived out each day. As its name implies, it has ten parts, ten actions which one may do privately, not “practicing your piety before others:”
- Only for today, I will seek to live the live-long day positively without wishing to solve the problems of my life all at once.
- Only for today, I will take the greatest care of my appearance: I will dress modestly; I will not raise my voice; I will be courteous in my behavior; I will not criticize anyone; I will not claim to improve or to discipline anyone except myself.
- Only for today, I will be happy in the certainty that I was created to be happy, not only in the other world but also in this one.
- Only for today, I will adapt to circumstances, without requiring all circumstances to be adapted to my own wishes.
- Only for today, I will devote 10 minutes of my time to some good reading, remembering that just as food is necessary to the life of the body, so good reading is necessary to the life of the soul.
- Only for today, I will do one good deed and not tell anyone about it.
- Only for today, I will do at least one thing I do not like doing; and if my feelings are hurt, I will make sure that no one notices.
- Only for today, I will make a plan for myself: I may not follow it to the letter, but I will make it. And I will be on guard against two evils: hastiness and indecision.
- Only for today, I will firmly believe, despite appearances, that the good Providence of God cares for me as no one else who exists in this world.
- Only for today, I will have no fears. In particular, I will not be afraid to enjoy what is beautiful and to believe in goodness. Indeed, for 12 hours I can certainly do what might cause me consternation were I to believe I had to do it all my life.
I hope that through this daily, private, even secret exercise of prayer, fasting, and discipline I will find myself, even those parts of me that I don’t want to discover, and become more aware of God in my life.
May your Lent, too, be a wilderness time of self-discovery. Remember, you don’t need to look for God; God is always there. This Lent, as the days lengthen and you keep vigil with Jesus, look for yourself, explore the secret chambers of your heart, and become more aware of God through your feelings, beliefs, and values.
This homily will be offered by the Rev. Dr. C. Eric Funston on Ash Wednesday, February 26, 2020, to the people of St. Matthew’s Episcopal Church, Brecksville, Ohio, where Fr. Funston will be guest preacher.
The lessons scheduled for the service are Joel 2:1-2,12-17; Psalm 103:8-14; 2 Corinthians 5:20b-6:10; St. Matthew 6:1-6,16-21. These lessons can be found at The Lectionary Page.
Click on footnote numbers to link back to associated text.
 Hymn No. 146, The Hymnal 1982
 Deuteronomy 15:8-11 (NRSV)
 Matthew 6:19-21 (NRSV)
 Troilus speaking to Cressida and Aeneas, Act IV, scene 4.
 George Eliot, Felix Holt the Radical (Wordsworth Classics, Ware, Hertfordshire, UK:1997), pg 380.
 Hebrews 4:15 (NRSV)
 Luke 4; Matthew 4
 Matthew 6:1 (NRSV)