Jesus condemns outward practices of worship that mask arrogant, unaccepting hearts. His disciples aren't occupied with avoiding powerless people to gain acceptance by powerful people. Nor are they to be giving up things to impress others with their piety, but with filling their days with his presence. We get the feeling that the Pharisees might well have gone out the side aisle to avoid their future pastor.
Lent is often caricatured as a long-faced, no-fun season. But Lent is really about saying no to some things so we can say yes to others. At the outset of his ministry Jesus was tempted by Satan to say yes to the chance to use his gifts for immediate gratification of his physical needs, to say yes to the enjoyment of material wealth and the thrill of power over others. He said no to these temptations, and headed into the towns and villages to say yes to long days and nights of healing, teaching, feeding, and exorcising.
During Lent we Christians are called to say no to any habit that comes between God and ourselves. It might be an unhealthy physical habit: unhealthy eating patterns, drinking, drug abuse. It might be an unhealthy spiritual diet: the habit of vicious gossip, of jealousy of others' accomplishments, or of consistently seeing the worst in people and situations. It might be indifference to the condition of the homeless and the lonely in our community. It might be the habit of judging and categorizing others to maintain our sense of superiority. It might be the tendency to see our spiritual lives as limited to one hour of worship on Sundays. It might be the habit of expecting unbroken peace and inward joy without putting in the time to cultivate our prayer relationship with God. It might be the habit of facing life's challenges without factoring the presence of God into the equation.
When we answer Christ's call to say no to destructive practices, energy is left to say yes to positive disciplines. We can fill the space and time left by our fasting with some positive disciplines to help us respond to God's love more intentionally. John Wesley called them the means of grace: prayer, searching the scriptures, fasting, acts of kindness aimed at justice, and regular attendance at corporate worship where we participate in the sacraments of baptism and communion and meet God as the scriptures are read and proclaimed.
Just as there are lots of things we may need to say no to during Lent, so there are many opportunities to say yes. I will see the good points of a troublesome family member. I will show more affection to my spouse. I will keep in better touch with my extended family. I will improve my understanding of issues of justice for the poor. I will participate in a ministry of care in my community.
In adopting these positive disciplines, even though they may be taxing for us, we find new life. As the prophet Isaiah says "Then your light shall break forth like the dawn, and your healing shall spring up quickly" (Is. 58:8).
Upon entering the large room in which the annual session of a church group was to take place for several days, participants noticed that one object dominated the platform upon which the sessions would be led. The object was a giant cross, stretching from just above an altar table to the tall ceiling of that room. Across the face of that cross one word had been emblazoned. It was the word "Yes."
The cross in ashes on our skin is our "yes" to the kind of Lent Jesus desires for each of us. He wants us to accompany him boldly, saying "no" to that which would slow our steps and saying "yes" to that which would fill our hearts and our actions with love for him and others. The kind of Lent Jesus desires for us is the kind that prepares our hearts for a Savior who rises from the ashes of death and injustice to bring a new life of justice and joy. That new life begins with Ash Wednesday.