Happy Aloha Friday, Ash Wednesday edition! I know it isn’t Friday, and I know Ash Wednesday isn’t exactly a day when we’re supposed to feel overly happy. In fact, our Prayer Book designates Ash Wednesday as one of two fast days of the year. Notice the word is fast and not feast. Ash Wednesday, of course, is the beginning of the season of Lent. Lent, which lasts 40 days (plus six Sundays!), serves as a time to prepare us for Easter. During Lent, Christians traditionally fast, pray, and give alms. Many Christians have a practice of making a private confession to a priest in the sacrament of reconciliation during Lent. Some churches participate in something called the Great Litany (See the Book of Common Prayer, page 148). Some Christians choose to pray the Daily Office every day, study the scriptures more diligently, or abstain from certain goodies as a form of self-denial. It is my goal, as your priest, to encourage you to choose a Lenten devotion that is useful in nurturing your relationship with God and with one another. This means any of the devotions we listed can be good, and it also means you have some autonomy in choosing your Lenten devotion.

            In a bizarre coincidence, today happens to also be Valentine’s Day (and for those of us who live in Arizona, it is also our statehood day!). It isn’t unheard of that Valentine’s Day and Ash Wednesday fall on the same day. It simply doesn’t happen all that often. The days also aligned in 2018, and they will again in 2029 and in 2040. After that, it won’t happen again in this century. Valentine’s Day is always February 14, but Ash Wednesday moves based on the lunar cycle. Easter Day is the first Sunday following the Paschal Full Moon, the first full moon on or after March 21. So the earliest Easter can fall is March 22, and the latest it can fall is April 25. This means Ash Wednesday can occur as early as February 4, or as late as March 10. However, it rarely falls that early or that late.

            So if today is Ash Wednesday, does this mean we shouldn’t celebrate Valentine’s Day? I suppose in the strictest sense, yes. But that doesn’t tell us the whole story. In the old days, there was a practice called special dispensation, which gave a diocesan bishop the final say as to whether fasting on a designated fast day could be suspended. In modern times, at least in the Episcopal Church, Christians are encouraged to fast in a way that is meaningful and helpful in their prayer lives. This means we get to discern for ourselves the best way to observe a fast day. Some romantic partners might choose to transfer their Valentine’s Day dinners to a different day during the week. Others might choose to celebrate today. Each of us has to choose for ourselves how best to hold the tension that comes with this shared observance. After all, we do have to live our lives with one foot in the Church world and one foot in the secular world. Sometimes the secular world doesn’t quite align perfectly with the Church world. As an example of what I mean, think of the juxtaposition of secular Christmas taking place during liturgical Advent. In cases such as that, we simply do our best.

            And doing our best is what Lent is really about. It isn’t about being perfect. We aren’t perfect. We all know that. And we don’t live in a perfect world. Instead of trying to be perfect, it is more helpful to acknowledge our imperfections and then to examine our lives so that we can find ways to learn and grow. This means we have to be honest with ourselves. We have to look in the mirror and explore all the parts of ourselves that make us uncomfortable. We have to look at a full-body photo of ourselves, instead of just a headshot that doesn’t show our tummies or our love handles that we’d otherwise prefer to ignore. And then we have to learn to do the difficult work of both loving our imperfections and committing to do what we can to improve those imperfections.

            During Lent, I encourage each of us to reflect on how best we can grow in faith and love. Can we do this best by abstaining from chocolate for the next 46 days? If so, then that is a good way to observe Lent! Or, can we do this best by making efforts to talk to someone who is lonely, or buying a hamburger for someone who is hungry, or by going to a movie with someone who might need a friend? These can be wonderful Lenten practices as well! Sometimes it can be easier to just do something that someone else tells us to do. If someone tells us not to drink beer during Lent, then we know the assignment. But is an easy practice something that will help us to grow as Christians? I would argue probably not. It can be uncomfortable to look at the less-attractive pieces of our lives. But when we embrace that discomfort, that is how we can do the difficult work of growing in our lives of prayer. I wish you a blessed Ash Wednesday, a holy Lent, and an enriching time of renewal, growth, and love. Let’s make this Lent a good one. Amen.

Do Your Best, Do Your Best, Put Your Fasting to the Test!