We live in a religious world, starting with our own. In America, religion is part and parcel of public life and ceremony. Chaplains open every session of Congress, they pray at every inauguration and bless our parades and holiday celebrations. Sunday morning T.V. is thick with back-to-back denominational services. There are churches or houses of worship in every neighborhood. We inscribe our coins with the reminder that we trust in God. For Christians, our Lenten practices spill over into daily life as restaurants offer Lenten menus, businesses provide ‘poor boxes’ at the checkout and faithful assemble for out of door prayer services.
So how do we explain the gap between the way we practice our faith and the way our world looks? It’s not a new question. In the gospel for the Sunday before Lent (Matthew: 6, 14-21) Jesus deals with it head on. Of the three pillars of religion -- prayer, fasting and almsgiving -- Jesus warns us not to be seduced into believing that any of them, by virtue of their own worthiness, is really religious.
About those who get satisfaction out of standing up in the synagogues or praying on the streets, he warns his followers “When you pray, go into your room alone and pray in secret.”
To those who gave great alms and in return got great publicity, he says, “When you give alms do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing.”
To those whose fasting was done with public fanfare and feigned distress, he tells his own followers, “When you fast, dress up, look your best.”
The gospel stops us cold. We blink. Whatever happens to the whole idea of public witness here? The answers to Jesus’ condemnation of religion for show are stark ones in a culture where religion is a very public and much ritualized thing. This gospel reminds us that public religion may actually be no religion at all. Real religion was clearly not, to the mind of Jesus, for public display, public witness or public gesture. We’re left with a question: Why do it if not as an example for others? And the answer must be that maybe, just maybe, it’s not religion as we know it that is supposed to be the example. The real example of religious commitment does not come from the rituals we keep. The example lies in what we become because of what we practice.
Lent is a call for each of us to become what we do: to become the heart that is so generous that there is no limiting the flow of love in the face of need. To become the repentance that is so deep and the self-knowledge that is so keen that we can’t possibly abide any form of injustice to others. To become the human beat of the heart of God that radiates an intimate sense of the presence of God in all aspects of His creation.
All the almsgiving, all the fasting, all the praying in the world will not be real, will not mean a thing, unless it first changes our own hearts into the very spirit of almsgiving and fasting and praying about which we speak. Clearly, Lent calls for complete transformation of the way we do religion, the way we function as a society, the way we measure spirituality itself.
Lent asks us lots of questions. Our transformation depends on how we answer Lent’s questions.