We speak of “Lenten discipline.” Contrary to popular thought, “discipline” is not a ruler across the knuckles or a scourge on the back. The Latin word discipulus, from which we get “disciple,” means a pupil or student; and disciplina, from which we get “discipline,” is a course of study, or education.
So, the point of Lenten discipline is to learn about oneself, about God, and about how one relates to God—in particular, here, about how one aligns one’s will with God’s will. It’s not about beating oneself up.
The Book of Common Prayer gives two possible Old Testament readings for Ash Wednesday. The reading from Isaiah asks whether humbling oneself, bowing down like a bulrush, and lying in sackcloth and ashes is a proper fast—and answers, No; it’s to loose the bonds of injustice, to share your bread with the hungry, to clothe the naked.
Think about giving a dinner party (Jesus liked those!). As host, you make sure everyone else has food before you start to chow down—and, if anyone goes hungry, you do. And the one miracle from Jesus’ ministry that appears in all four Gospels is the feeding of a multitude—which seems to say to me that, if you prepare for (and expect) the possibility, God won’t let the food run out.
The imposition of ashes seems to fly in the face of the Ash Wednesday reading from the Gospel. But that’s because the ashes are a tool, not the point of the exercise. The ashes remind us that we’re mortal—we’re human—and the sign of the cross reminds us that God loved us so much that God took on human nature in the person of Jesus, to defeat death in the end.
So we’re off to learn during Lent—about ourselves, and about God, and about aligning our will with God’s will. Fasting and denying oneself are not the point; “cleaning house” and being able better to focus is.
Any teacher will tell you that education is not just up to the teacher—the teacher doesn’t unscrew the top of the student’s head, pour in the learning, and screw the top back on; the student needs to be present, attentive, and engaged. So that’s our obligation.
Learning isn’t easy—but it’s not hard for the sake of being hard. It’s hard because it takes prolonged engagement.
I hope to learn something about myself and about God during Lent. Am I going to do as good a job at that as I want? No; I know that already. Will that disappoint me? Yes; but that’s not important, because the process is not a failure. I have the examples of the Disciples-with-a-capital-D to reassure me. Consider what they did. They argued about who was greatest, and were silent when Jesus called them on it. In his “farewell discourse” in John, Jesus said no one comes to the Father except through Jesus; Philip responded, “Show us the Father and we ask nothing more”—and Jesus asked, “Have you learned nothing during your stay with me?” In Gethsemane, Peter cut off someone’s ear, and Jesus said, “Put your sword back in its scabbard.” The Disciples were right there, walking with the physical Jesus himself, and they didn’t get it a lot of the time; I’m going to make a hash of it, too—but that’s not the point. In the parable of the talents, “Well done” goes to the servants who were attentive and used the talents put in their care; disappointment is only shown in the servant who did nothing with it.
So, during this Lent, let’s use the tools we’re given, with the goal of better understanding ourselves, God, and God’s will.