Sometimes Jesus doesn’t make a lot of sense. In today’s Gospel reading he exhorts his followers to fast, but also tells them not to make a big deal of it. Though the Old Testament reading from Joel tells us to “Blow the Trumpet. Sanctify a fast.” Jesus says specifically, “Do not blow a trumpet.” Confusing.
I grew up thinking of Lent kind of like a Christian version of New Year’s resolutions. It was a time to start a diet, give up caffeine or chocolate, stop smoking or swearing, or doing something else unproductive. This understanding existed alongside the traditional understanding of giving up something we loved as a sacrifice to God. It saw Lent as an invitation to self-improvement. God would be our helper. Both of these images of Lent are important and beautiful. They help me to understand the places in my life that need work and to invite God into those spaces.
Lately though another image of Lent has become compelling. A few years ago Trinity Wallstreet, an Episcopal Church in New York, had a series of Lenten audio/visual meditations on their website. One in particular focused upon a staff member at the Church who had chosen to take a different route to work on his bicycle as his Lenten discipline. He saw Lent as an invitation to change perspective, to shift his daily commute to work initiated a process of examining his usual assumptions. Lent became not simply a time of abstinence, but an opportunity to look at life through a new lens, to start each day with a new route.
This is the original meaning of the word “repent.” The original word (metanoia) translates literally: “a change of mind:” a shift in perspective. Our world can become flooded with ordinariness. We can be so caught up in the ways we usually see, our everyday patterns, that we miss the strangeness, the particularity, the holiness present in our daily lives. In the midst of this, Lent becomes an opportunity to allow God to jar us out of the ruts we run in, the well worn paths we know by heart, so that we might discover newness, fresh perspective, and glimpse the divine in ways we might otherwise miss.
Barbara Brown Taylor talks about it this way. “In order to to discern the hidden figure, it is often necessary to cross your eyes or stand on your head so that all known relationships are called into question and new ones may be imagined. When earth and sky are reversed and it seems entirely plausible that lawns may grow down instead of up, then you are in a good position to glimpse the hidden figure, because you are ready to approach it on its own terms instead of your own.” (from The Preaching Life).
I’ve never been particularly good at standing on my head. I was always clumsy and awkward, and I have what a friend once described as “sturdy legs,” which draw themselves quickly toward the earth when they are raised in the air. But the times I have managed to stand on my head, the world has seemed more alive. Whether due to the blood rushing toward my head, or the disorientation of balance, being upside down is always a thrill.
What Lent asks of us, what I think Jesus is saying through his contradictoriness in the passage for today, is to practice fasting while standing on our heads. Disorientation can become reorientation, inversion can become a practice for discerning truth, for discovering the God surprisingly present to us. Out of the wisdom of thousands of years of spiritual practice, the Church invites us into a holy season that is wholly different from the ordinary. Whatever we decide to do for Lent, whatever we give up or take on, let it be for us an invitation to shift our perspective, to see things upside down. Because standing on our head we might just catch a glimpse of God.