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Ash Wednesday - beginning of Lent

Matthew 6:1-16, 20-21: In our reading from Matthew, Jesus is less concerned with our devotion, almsgiving, prayer and fasting than with our motivation for those things. Do we seek the respect, even perhaps the admiration of others? Is there a temptation to value these things as rewards more than we value the rewards of God – maybe without even fully realising it we seek something instant, a quick fix, over things that are deeper, and harder to find, and more rewarding. 

We can all of course invest a great deal in the illusion of how we are seen by others. Outward behaviours might have changed, but human nature hasn’t – in the society for which Matthew wrote you could go to the synagogue in order to be seen to pray, to be seen to be there … we can all think of contemporary equivalents. My child is cleverer than your child. My house is bigger than your house. My holidays are more expensive. I am so important at work … I am busier than you.

“You made us for yourself, and our hearts are restless until they find their rest in you”, St Augustine wrote. But it is very easy to live in a kind of restlessness. And that is maybe a situation particularly relevant to the 21st century, in a 24 hour city, in the age of the smartphone. 

Recently I have for the first time been working outside London and I was walking across my company’s campus the other day with a colleague, who said “Why are you walking so fast – are you in London mode or something?”. I love London, but I also think he had a point. And my phone is rarely far from me, but I’ve had to learn to recognise that just because I have the distractions of the web at my disposal at all times, doesn’t mean I have to fill every spare moment by using it. The web even has its own acronym for that – Wilf – which stands for What Am I Looking For. Restlessness indeed.

We all of course look for ourselves outside of ourselves. St. Augustine again: “You [God] were within me and I was outside of myself, and I searched for you in that exterior world”.

Of course what we say or do in order to be seen by others tells us much about ourselves; reveals authentic needs and desires. Our desire to be recognised and acknowledged, valued, respected, loved; to be accepted for who we are. To be included; to be part of a community. What we say or do in order to be seen by others, does nothing less than speak to us of our longing for the transcendent – if we have the courage to admit it.

Here we are on another Ash Wednesday, another season of Lent about to begin. We speak of a Lenten journey, don’t we, and part of how I see that is as a journey inwards, to my innermost self. That was surely what was going on in Jesus’ life, in the forty days in the wilderness which Lent commemorates. But when the forty days were over, he returned to society, to action, to involvement in the world – and reflecting on that gave me pause when I thought about my own observance of Lent. I always give up alcohol, and choose some theological or literary work to read – but another conversation with a colleague who practised Veganuary, as being vegan for January is known. made me think about being vegan for maybe three days a week or something – because that would connect to the external world, and as part of it I would face up better to what we are doing to our planet. What I am getting at, is take something on, don’t just give something up. And if I don’t dwell particularly on those other demands of the season, prayer and almsgiving, that is because those things rightly are to be done in any and every season.

Earlier we read: “Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moths and vermin destroy, and where thieves break in and steal. But store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where moths and vermin do not destroy, and where thieves do not break in and steal. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.”
What do you most treasure? Where has your searching in the exterior world led? A Lenten journey is one of those journeys in which the journey itself is as important as the destination.

“Where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.”