Wednesday, February 21, 2007

Ash Wednesday

Ash Wednesday– Year C
Isaiah 58:1-12; Psalm 103; 2 Corinthians 5:20b-6:10; Matthew 6:1-6,16-21
Wednesday, February 21, 2007 (7:00 am) – St. Alban’s, Westwood

Today is the beginning of our journey through the season of Lent. Today, Ash Wednesday, is the time of preparation for this 40-day journey– a journey in which we will walk with Jesus during his 40 days of temptation in the wilderness, in which we will talk with Jesus through his periods of testing and anguish as he faces the last days of his life. But Lent is more than just walking with Jesus on his journey toward the cross. It is also our own journey, in which we take the time to examine our own lives as we prepare for the most amazing event to happen in the history of humanity.

In this season of penitence, Christians have traditionally focused on performing various Lenten disciplines. Today’s Gospel lesson specifically discusses three such disciplines that have come to be associated with this season – almsgiving, or helping those in need; prayer; and fasting. Of course, performance of any or all of these disciplines is not specifically restricted to the season of Lent. As Christians, we should be practicing these disciplines throughout the year, particularly those of almsgiving and prayer. Fasting, on the other hand, tends to be reserved for more penitential times, such as Lent.

While all of these are worthy and noble disciplines, I think the message of today’s Gospel lesson is less about specific disciplines and more about the way we are to approach our spiritual disciplines. Throughout this lesson, we are met with the refrain, that the respective disciplines should be done in secret, in which case, “your Father who sees in secret will reward you.” In effect, Matthew is saying that spiritual disciplines are not to be outwardly visible signs, done for show, to garner approval from others or to show how others how pious and devout we are. Rather, they are to be a private matter, purely between us and God. That is not to say that religion and our relationship with God is purely a private matter. Certainly not! What this means is that our attention needs to be turned inward, not in an act of isolation, but in a mode of reflection.

Through reflection and self-examination that accompanies our engagement in spiritual disciplines, we may learn something about ourselves, about our spiritual progress, and about our relationship with God. In the emptying of ourselves through almsgiving and fasting, we hopefully find that that physical emptiness is filled with the presence of God. We hopefully find that the lack of physical sustenance is replaced with the spiritual sustenance which only God can provide – a sustenance that is ultimately far more satisfying and life-giving. In reflective engagement with, and receipt of sustenance from, God, we find that our participation in various spiritual disciplines has an impact not only on how we relate to God, but also how we relate to others. Ultimately, the treasures that are stored up for us are personal and spiritual growth, attained through engaging in spiritual disciplines and the self-examination of how these disciplines affect us and others.

Regardless of what spiritual discipline you have chosen to undertake this Lenten season, I invite you to accompany it with significant time spent in prayer, reflection, and self-examination. Explore how engagement in the discipline is affecting your life. Explore how the discipline is affecting your relationship with others. And explore how the discipline is affecting your relationship with God. Without such reflection and self-examination, the pursuit of a spiritual discipline during Lent will do little, if any, good. Make your Lenten discipline count for something – do it in a way that will benefit your personal and spiritual development. Do it in a way that will benefit your relationship with yourself, with others, and with God.

The growth that can occur through our Lenten journey leads us from our present life, into death, and to new life. In the process, we are required to confront our own sinfulness, to repent, and to be reconciled with God and with others. Therefore, it is appropriate that as we prepare for this journey through Lent, we mark ourselves with ashes, with the traditional sign of mourning and penitence, with the sign of death and the recognition of our own sinfulness. But these ashes we will receive in a few moments are not solely signs of sin and death. They are also a sign of God’s grace and mercy. They are a sign of hope for rebirth, made possible through God’s unending love for us – a love that is evidenced by the events that occur at the end of this Lenten journey; a love that is evidenced in Jesus’ journey to Jerusalem, where he is tried, convicted, and sentenced to death; a love that is evidenced by Christ’s willingness to be crucified for our sake; a love that is evidenced by his resurrection to new life – a new life in which we all share at the end of this Lenten journey.

In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

No comments: