In this social media age it can be tempting to think that if it didn’t appear on Facebook or Instagram, or wasn’t shapchatted or tweeted then it didn’t happen! Indeed we at the Irish Chaplaincy have been happily working with a consultant on our social media strategy and were delighted to conclude that our recent ‘Fireside Gathering’ concert was a social media triumph (as well as a musical one!).
Yet we hear quite a different message in the Church readings for Ash Wednesday. We are told in Matthew 6 not to parade our good deeds in order to attract notice, and that when we give alms it should be done in secret, for “your left hand must not know what your right is doing.” That line always brings to mind my mum recalling to me, “Your Granny McStay used to say ‘don’t let this (holding up her left hand) know what this (holding up the right) is doing!” When I mentioned this once to Gerry he said, “Well my mother used to say ‘don’t let your left hand know that you’ve got a right hand’!” We’re also advised by Matthew to pray in the seclusion of our own room, and elsewhere we are entreated to not look miserable when we fast! I’m always a bit surprised as well that several times after healing someone in the gospels Jesus instructs the person not to tell anyone about it. What does the person go and do? Tell everyone! Of course they did: surely Jesus must have known that they would?
I enter this season of Lent, as ever, with some reluctance. Maybe even more so this time around after almost a year that has felt penitential and which has involved enforced fasting from all sorts of things like seeing family and friends, travelling, live music and sports events; even something as simple as sitting in a café drinking a cup of tea. Do I really need to dress up in sackcloth and ashes and spend the next six and a bit weeks doing even more fasting?
The event that we mark in Lent is Jesus going into a desert for forty days; and in some respects the last eleven months have been desert-like. I have to remind myself that deserts can be places of beauty as well as bleakness.
One of my favourite passages in the Old Testament is from Ezekiel (Chapter 36):
‘I shall pour clean water over you and you will be cleansed. I will cleanse you of all your defilement and all your idols. I shall give you a new heart and put a new spirit in you; I shall remove the heart of stone from your bodies and give you a heart of flesh instead.’
Perhaps the best I can ask for this Lent is to be given a heart of flesh and one that is open. Open to seeing the places of beauty in the desert; open to receiving whatever daily gifts are given, even if they may not always seem like gifts; and open to reaching out to others, even if the act doesn’t end up (as I might wish it to) on social media. I’ll also try my best to not look too miserable if I fast!