Ash Wednesday

Tonight, Lent begins, and this season is often associated with serious spiritual disciplines and spiritual practices that are not always easy or fun. So I am going to begin by sharing a poem. Perhaps I should give up poor humor for Lent!

Let Evening Come (Jane Kenyon, Let Evening Come)

Let the light of late afternoon
shine through chinks in the barn, moving
up the bales as the sun moves down.

Let the cricket take up chafing
as a woman takes up her needles
and her yarn. Let evening come.

Let dew collect on the hoe abandoned
in the long grass. Let the stars appear
and the moon disclose her silver horn.

Let the fox go back to its sandy den.
Let the wind die down. Let the shed
go black inside. Let evening come.

To the bottle in the ditch, to the scoop
in the oats, to the air in the lung
let evening come.

Let it come as it will, and don’t
be afraid. God does not leave us
comfortless, so let evening come.

When I was asked about a theme for Lent, the idea of “From Darkness to Light” came to mind. Seasonally, this makes sense – as spring nears, the days get a little longer and we appreciate that additional light. We think of Lent as something of a serious time as we prepare for the light and joy of Easter to arrive. So that is our theme this year – “from darkness to light.”
In the Bible, darkness is often used as a negative metaphor. Darkness symbolizes evil – the night is dark and in the dark of night is a time for crime. Remember, the Bible was composed at a time when there were few artificial lights so people were much more tied to natural cycles of light and dark. Walking in the dark of night was more dangerous than in the light of day – so darkness represented that which frightens. In darkness, things are hidden, our faces are hidden from one another. Touring a cave once, we were informed that to exist in total darkness for a length of time would drive a human person stark raving mad. Darkness represents chaos and death, as against light which symbolizes life and happiness and prosperity. We hear the contrast in places such as Ecclesiastes 2:13. Wisdom excels folly as light excels darkness. In Lent, then, we commit ourselves to journey toward all that is wise and life-giving and loving, and to light candles in a world which is too darkened by hatred and injustice and unkindness.
But as with many Biblical images, this one speaks polyphonically, multivocally. Not everywhere in the Bible is darkness portrayed negatively. Isaiah 45:7 has God saying, “I form light and create darkness.” Even more strongly, in a work written between the testaments, “The Prayer of Azariah” – a Greek addition to the Book of Daniel included in the Apocrypha, we read: “Bless the Lord, light and darkness.” Darkness can mean something else then. Some kind of darkness can bless God and be a place where the creativity of God is encountered.
It is an invitation to that kind of darkness, of creativity and blessing, that I hear in Jane Kenyon’s poem. Hearing it, one can almost experience the coming of night, the quiet, the serenity – and here we are told God is present. Here darkness might symbolize silence, quiet, slowing down, time for inner reflection. Let evening come.
Where darkness means frightening and fearful, chaos and destruction – cultivate the light of love, life, goodness. Light a candle in a dark world. That it good Lenten practice. Where darkness instead means quiet, slowing down, inner reflection, good Lenten practice invites us to cultivate that darkness, to let evening come.
I hear in Matthew 6, in the words of Jesus there, an invitation, an encouragement to quiet disciplines. We are encouraged to quiet generosity, to giving that is so subtle one hardly notices it oneself. Does that mean all our giving should be anonymous? I don’t think so, but these words invite us to inner reflection. Do we give more for the recognition or for the good the gift will do? Most do both, but which predominates. Answering that question provides insight into our hearts.
We are encouraged to simple prayer, to prayer that is in private, that is not pretentious, that does not rely on extra words. Does that mean we should never pray together? I hope not. I trust not. These words don’t speak against public prayer, but for quiet prayer and simple prayer, public or private. It invites prayer in the quit and dark spaces.
We are encouraged to secret fasting, to practices that discipline our minds and bodies well. Does that mean we should never share our fasting practices, such as giving up red meat for Lent as someone did last year? No. I think it means most of the self-discipline we need is ours to struggle with and we share it only for accountability’s sake, and not so we can point out what a phenomenal spiritual athlete we are.
We are encouraged to cultivate a right heart – through prayer, through generosity, through self-discipline and by other means available. Cultivating a right heart – a heart oriented toward God, toward life, toward goodness, requires time for quiet, for silence, for self-reflection – it requires some darkness.
A boy could not wait to get to high school. The high school kids seemed to be having so much fun. When he got to high school he couldn’t help but notice the people, like his older sister who were in college. They seemed to be having more fun than he was, seemed to be enjoying life more than he. He could not wait to get to college. College, however, seemed to drag on after a time and he was tired of it – tired of all the reading and papers. He couldn’t wait to get out of school and get a job and make some money. When he got his first job, it seemed as though people who were really happy were the ones with a wife or husband, children, a home with a yard – maybe a family dog. After he was married with two children and a mortgage and a dog, he envied those couples whose children had gone away to college. They seemed to have so much more time for each other and for doing the things they wanted to do. Finally, his children left for college, but the cost of tuition added to the cost of his mortgage required a lot of hard work and saving. He couldn’t wait to pay off his debt, own his home outright and retire. Then the real joy in life would begin – he could move to Arizona and play golf every day. One day, standing in a tee box at his favorite golf course near his home in Tucson, the man, still trying to straighten out the slice which continued to plague him even after all these years, the man stood there and couldn’t help but ask, “Is this all?”
Lent is a time to consider how we move from darkness to light – and for lighting candles in the dark places in the world, but also a time for finding a certain darkness, certain times of quiet and shadow where we give quietly, pray silently, fast secretly, and most of all engage in the kind of self-reflection that helps us cultivate a good heart. Let evening come. Amen.