Today is Ash Wednesday, the beginning of Lent. Christians world-wide will enter into a heightened time (40 days) of prayer, reflection, and spiritual companionship with Jesus to the cross. This annual pilgrimage awakens our heart to its own true desire.
In today’s lectionary text Jesus tells us not to give, fast, or pray like the “hypocrites” who put on a public show. His words may sound harsh to our ears, but if we suspend the tone of judgment, Jesus is making a profoundly liberating observation.
The word hypocrite that Jesus uses means “actor.” Jesus is telling us something about how tempting it is in prayer to act, to play a role, to pray as if we are playing to the crowd in our heart. The problem with playing to the crowd is that crowds reward us as only crowds can. Crowds by their very nature are fickle and unstable. They shout “Hosanna” one day and “crucify him” the next. The capricious energy of the crowd is deadly to the soul. We easily become puppets of the crowd’s desire, which is always and forever unsatisfied. That is why, desiring far more nourishing rewards, Jesus withdraws from crowds often. He invites us to do the same.
Who of us is not living our lives, at least to some degree, as if we were on stage, playing a part, locked inside a role we can’t seem to get out of? Some of us play the role of victor, others play the role of victim. Both are stuck and bound to the other in mutually destructive ways. This is why C.S. Lewis said the most fundamental prayer in life is, “May the real I meet the real Thou.” This is exactly what Jesus is getting at in this passage. It’s the whole point of Lent.
So, how does the real I meet the real Thou? How do we get off Broadway and into reality?
Mercifully, Jesus tells his disciples to go to their rooms and shut the door. This is not a reprimand. It’s an invitation. The “inner room” in the ancient Middle East was the equivalent of a pantry or larder where food was stored and preserved. It was located in the inner part of the house with no windows, only a door to seal it off.
In the inner room we can finally stop acting. In the inner room we are free of the crowds who so easily rule and run us like puppets. In the inner room, we stop feeding on the unstable and fickle desires of others and learn to borrow our desires from the One who desires us. The inner room is like a detox center that sobers the heart and awakens it to its deepest desires. It awakens us to the truth that our deepest desires are hidden in God, like a treasure. Yes, desire IS prayer! This is why Jesus wants us to follow it. He says, “Where your treasure is (think desire), there is your heart also.” So, go to the inner room. Trust your desire and follow it come hell or high water to its origin. You will not only find God, but your own heart as well.
Lent is the invitation to the larder—to meet with God in the inner room of life and locate our heart’s desire inside the heart of the One who desires us. And our reward? The answer is already at work in us—all of us.
trust your heart
if the seas catch fire
(and live by love
though the stars walk backward.)
~ e.e. cummings, from the poem “Dive For Dreams“
Today’s Ash Wednesday reflection is an excerpt from The Human Becoming: a Lenten Devotional, created by the Tacoma Center for Urban Peacemaking.