I. Lent is a time of possibility for growth.
A. The word comes from ME lente, which in turn comes from OE lencten, meaning “spring” (in the sense of lengthening; the lengthening of hours of sunlight). Sun and joy return in spring.
II. Means of growth in Lent: an awareness of dust, and the traditional practices of prayer, fasting, and almsgiving. These lead us in joy, not sorrow, to grow more and more into the love of God.
A. First, an awareness of dust. Dust is an ambivalent symbol. Ashes can seem to mean nothingness, worthlessness.
Yet the words of imposition of ashes do not say
"You are slime, and to slime you shall return."
"You are garbage, and to garbage you shall return."
Rather, they say "You are dust."
Which is to say, “You are of the earth; a creature, not the Creator.” In Hebrew adamah is earth, hence ADAM is "of the earth." EVA is similar to the word for "living." So the primal man and woman together are of the earth and of life.
They are made out of earth yet in the image of God. Through sin they have been estranged from God, but that image is not totally defaced in them. It remains as a longing to return to God, deeper than life itself. In the words of the Psalmist "As the deer thirsts for water, so longs my soul for you." And as St. Augustine said, "You have made us for yourself and our hearts are never at rest but in you."
In other words, just as in a plant rooted in the earth there is a heliotropism, an innate tendency to turn toward the sun as it courses across the sky; there is even in the most broken of humans a theotropism, an innate tendency to turn in the direction of God's love; a tendency that even sin cannot entirely erase.
In spring growth happens in things of earth as they turn toward the sun, whose time of shining lengthens in each successive day. The sun is there already before the plant begins to grow.
So it is between us and God. Before time ever was and immense clouds of gases began to swirl in space--one place in which became our sun and another became this planet--God's love was there for us already, anticipating each one of us. God initiates and we respond, God calls and we answer, however hesitantly.
Thus being of earth and in it is a good place for growth to start, when there is sun there already. To know that we are dust is a situation of realism—humility is not groveling—it is to have our feet firmly planted on humus, on the earth--recognizing what is actually true about ourselves and the world around us. To be dust, and to know it is to get real, to give up illusions of grandeur, and so it is a ground for hope, for joy in possibilities of growth.
B. Lent and Baptism
In the ancient Church the season of Lent developed as the intensification of a three year cycle of preparation for Baptism by adults. Those already baptized began to participate with the catechumens in their practice of preparation, as a sign of solidarity with them. Now we do not have large numbers of adults preparing for Baptism but the season remains as a time of opportunity for letting God grow us more and more into God's love.
C. The traditional means of growth in Lent are the triad of prayer, fasting, and almsgiving.
PRAYER. Jesus did not say "if you pray" but "whenever you pray." Most essentially this is turning ourselves to the presence of God by spending time in loving attention with God, not asking so much as listening. St. John Vianney, the French parish priest who was canonized for his sensitivity and commitment as a pastor, told of an illiterate old peasant who came to his church every day. The man spent about an hour sitting in the nave, looking up at the figure of Christ on the Cross that was mounted at the top of the Rood Screen. Vianney wondered what the peasant was doing as he sat there. Finally he asked him. Pointing to the Rood Screen, the old man replied, “I look at Him, and He looks at me, and we are happy.”
Study can be prayer. Lectio divina--reverent and meditative reading of the scriptures. Choosing an edifying book. Prayer can be participation in individual sacramental confession. Lent is an especially good time for that. Prayer can also be rest--more sleep, prefaced and followed by saying the Lord's Prayer. The God who loves us wants us to rest and grow. My dear priest friend and mentor Grant Gallup said that for some years one of his spiritual directors was his cat. As a spiritual director the cat taught Grant to take naps.
Prayer should be as easy as possible--since God is already spending time with us in loving attention we do not have to strive at prayer--just make time for it. You may pray by turning to a loved one and thanking God for them silently, in your heart. I used to say the Jesus Prayer silently a few times while driving to work: "Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner."
Edward Pusey, who became the leader of the Catholic revival in the Church of England in the nineteenth century, during the last few days of his life simply said the word "Jesus" periodically. Our Savior's Name was Pusey's mantra, the last word on his lips.
FASTING. Jesus did not say "if you fast" but "whenever you fast." This is safe practice in deliberately saying no. It is exercise in denying our impulses in circumstances where it is fairly easy to say no so that when we encounter the really hard times for saying no we have had some practice at it. It may be hard to say no when somebody tells a racist or anti-Semitic joke at the office or at school. It may be hard to say no when we discover that the company we work for is cheating people. For those situations we need preparatory exercise and as Christians we need boundaries.
Saying no is not necessarily a matter of giving up something. But if you give something up it should be something good, not bad for you. Fasting is not giving up smoking, or cruelty to others. You should give them up forever. Rather, in fasting give up apples--they are good for you and pleasant. Give up the nice shaving lotion or cologne you like to wear. Be sure to give up something small and easy, so you can have successful practice in saying no.
Be sure as well to combine fasting with feasting. That is another reason for giving up something good during Lent. Traditionally, Sundays are in Lent, not of Lent. So on Sundays have an apple. Have two! Use the shaving lotion or cologne. Revel in the goodness of things God has created as a way of reminding yourself that you too were created for good. Then on Monday, back to exercise in restraint. But without feasting there is no playfulness, and without play and delight for humans there is no growth.
By giving up one good thing you may have time for some other good thing--such as more deliberate prayer or almsgiving.
ALMS. Jesus did not say “if you give alms” but “whenever you give alms.” If we are praying well and fasting and feasting, and God is growing within us a more complete awareness of the fullness of God's love for us, I cannot see how we would not be drawn into almsgiving. Alms--the "corporal works of mercy"--is the spilling over of our joy in God's love for us in an awareness and concern for the needs of others. We can only give freely and joyfully when we are filled, not when we are trying to run on empty. The delight we find in the kind of prayer that is simple and right for us, the delight in fasting combined with feasting, gives us enough of a sense of sufficiency that we can share God's mercy for us with others. As the Psalmist says, "You anoint my head with oil, my cup overflows." There is enough in that superabundance for sharing with others too.
The time or money saved in prayer and fasting can become alms. When I was a small child we went to the Presbyterian Church (this was before I became a Lutheran, which was before I became an Episcopalian). Each Lent we had a very simple family meal on Wednesday nights--sometimes it was corn meal mush, which I loved. The money we saved we gave each Easter for those who were hungry. I was so glad on Easter Day that we had a gift to give those who had less food than we did.
Perhaps the best alms are given when we put ourselves in a situation to receive as well as to give. Years after I did inner city youth work in Chicago in the early 1960’s I realized that I had learned from those young people more than I had taught them, and that their acceptance of me as I worked with them had changed my life.
Dust is not a bad place to start from in growing when the sunlight is increasing, day by day. Dust is in fact a good place to start; a place where we can plant our feet on solid ground and get real. Our growing in Lent is a process that is assisted by prayer, fasting, and almsgiving--through which we hear and feed and receive much more than we give, because God's love, like the sunlight, is there for us before we or anything else ever was and because, made of earth, we are also made in the image of our Creator. I wish you a joyful growing season this Lent, one in which a spiritual spring will come once again for all of us here, and for all Christians in the universal Church throughout the world. Spring will come again; it will.
"Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return." Thanks be to God. Amen.