"Nevertheless, the liturgy of Ash Wednesday is not focused on the sinfulness of the penitent but on the mercy of God. The question of sinfulness is raised precisely because this is a day of mercy, and the just do not need a savior."
Today, much of Christendom enters the period of Lent. The 40 days leading up to Easter. A time of fasting and devotion, mirroring the 40 days of Jesus' temptation in the desert. And one of the most prominent aspects of Lent is the self-denial.
This often manifests as a goal to give up something for the 40 day period. To give up sweets, alcohol, caffeine, meat, chocolate, fast food, television, internet, etc. Something that represents a challenge. That is a true denial.
It's a form of fasting, like the full-fasts on Ash Wednesday and Good Friday, as well as the abstinence from meat on Fridays during the period. In that aspect, it is important to remember the purpose of a fast.
Fasts in scripture are generally used for two purposes: to seek direction or to beg for mercy.
Both require the proper attitude for the fast to be fruitful. With those purposes, it's easy to see why. A half-hearted attempt to seek mercy will be clearly seen through and reveal unresolved issues that must be dealt with first. Likewise, an attempt to seek direction that will likely not be followed is folly. Both purposes have the ultimate goal of bringing the supplicant closer to God. That should never be done lightly.
For God warns us of the fasting that He desires. And of what follows from self-serving fasts.
"For day after day they seek me out; they seem eager to know my ways, as if they were a nation that does what is right and has not forsaken the commands of its God. 'Why have we fasted,' they say, 'and you have not seen it? Why have we humbled ourselves and you have not noticed?' Yet on the day of your fasting, you do as you please and exploit all your workers. Your fasting ends in quarreling and strife, and in striking each other with wicked fists. You cannot fast as you do today and expect your voice to be heard on high. Is this the kind of fast I have chosen, only a day for people to humble themselves? Is it only for bowing one's head like a reed and for lying in sackcloth and ashes? Is that what you call a fast, a day acceptable to the Lord? Is not this the kind of fasting I have chosen: to loose the chains of injustice and untie the cords of the yoke, to set the oppressed free and break every yoke? Is it not to share your food with the hungry and to provide the poor wanderer with shelter - when you see the naked, to clothe them, and not turn away from your own flesh and blood? Then your light will break forth like the dawn, and your healing will quickly appear; then your righteousness will go before you, and the glory of the Lord will be your rear guard. Then you will call, and the Lord will answer; you will cry for help, and he will say: Here am I. If you do away with the yoke of oppression, with the pointing finger and malicious talk, and if you spend yoursevles in behalf of the hungry and satisfy the needs of the oppressed, then your light will rise in the darkness, and your night will become like the noonday. The Lord will guide you always; he will satisfy your needs in a sun-sorched land and will strengthen your frame. You will be like a well-watered garden, like a spring whose waters never fail. Your people will rebuild the ancient ruins and will rise up the age-old foundations; you will be called Repairer of Broken Walls, Restorer of Streets with Dwellings."
Oh, what the world would be if all of Christendom took these next 40 days to fast as the Lord has indicated. How far His mercy would go.
May we use this time well.