Wednesday, March 01, 2017

Preparing for Our Lenten Journey

Ash Wednesday
Isaiah 58.1-12; Matthew 6.1-6, 16-21
St. Gregory’s, Long Beach

Today we begin our Lenten journey, where we travel with Jesus to Jerusalem and what awaits him there in what we call Holy Week. Historically, the Lenten journey is a period of intentional preparation for baptism at Easter. Of preparation for our incorporation into the Body of Christ. Even though we ourselves are not going to be baptized, we do renew our baptismal vows at Easter. A reminder of who we are and whose we are. Lent is a time for us to intentionally focus on what it means to be a child of God, to prepare for the renewal of our commitment to God and Christ at Easter.

The tone of this journey is a somber one, marked by a time of penitence. Of the recognition of our sinful nature, that we have not always followed God’s commandments. These were summarized by Christ himself – “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind. This is the greatest and first commandment. And a second is like it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself” (Mt 22.37-39).

In Lent we recognize in a more intentional way that we have faltered in these commandments. The corrective traditionally laid out for practice during Lent, the corrective intended to bring us back into alignment with these commandments, is the three-fold practices of almsgiving, prayer, and fasting.

Almsgiving is the providing for those who are in need through acts of charity. This is intended to provide for justice toward others, by providing them with the basic needs to live into the fullness of who God created them to be – the fullness that God intends for all of us. In this, almsgiving is focused on loving our neighbors as ourselves.

Prayer is quite simply communication with God. This is intended to provide the means whereby we seek not so much to talk to God, but to listen to God. To be open to hearing his expression of his will for our lives, to be open to living as he would have us do. To be open to discerning who he is calling us to be. In this, prayer is focused on loving God with our whole being.

Fasting is the critical examination of our lives – looking at what is truly necessary for our physical and spiritual lives and what may be detracting from our wellbeing. Giving up those things that get in the way of living into who and what we are called to be. And taking on those things that will strengthen and enhance who and what we are called to be. In this, fasting is sort of a hybrid, bridging the two commandments. Through fasting we are focusing on what is truly important in maintaining our relationship with our self, as well as our relationships with God and with our neighbors.

In expounding on these three-fold disciplines, Jesus tells us in today’s Gospel that we do this “so that your [acts of almsgiving, prayer, or fasting] may be seen not by others but by your Father who is in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you.” We do these things not for ourselves. Not to show how pious and devout we are. Rather, what we do is expressly to benefit our relationships with God and neighbor. To bring about reconciliation with God and with our neighbor. By more fully living out the commandments.

Jesus is amplifying our Old Testament lesson from Isaiah, which tells us that outward acts of piety do not necessarily reflect authentic changes in how we approach the world. We do not always take these acts to heart, and allow them to change our view of our relationship with God and with others. Jesus’ injunctions, and the season of Lent in which we focus on these practices and what they truly mean for us as people of God and followers of Christ, give us the opportunity to live into their meaning in our lives. Lent is a time of practice of these disciplines, so that in time they may become habit. They may become ingrained. They may become inherent in who we are. Not going back to our old ways when Lent is over.

Part of the refrain in Jesus’ injunctions is “and your Father who sees in secret will reward you.” That reward is deeper relationship with God through acts of prayer. The reward is deeper concern for that which concerns God – justice and mercy toward his children – through acts of fasting. And as a result, the rewards is deeper relationship with our neighbors, through our acts of almsgiving.

All of these are brought to their fullest at the end of the Lenten journey. When we have traveled with Jesus to Jerusalem, witnessed his arrest and trial, when we have stood at the foot of the cross and watched him die. When we stand at the opening to the empty tomb on Easter and witness the glory of the Risen Christ, bringing to fruition God’s desires for all humanity – reconciliation with him and with one another.

So why the ashes?

Throughout the Old Testament there are references to a ritual in which a person who experiences great sorrow or grief sits in ashes and pours them over their head. Sometimes, this was also an act of repentance for sins committed. For sin is that which separates us from God and from one another. Those thoughts, words, actions, or inactions that cause us to fail to follow God’s laws, that separate us from God. That in those thoughts, words, actions, or inactions, we also separate ourselves from one another. The ashes are at once a reminder of that sin, that separation, and an expression of the grief and sorrow that separation causes us. And ashes are at the same time a reminder of death. A reminder that like the first human, Adam, we are made of dust and will return to dust. That our time on this earth is limited. That our time to seek reconciliation with God and with others is limited.

The early Church continued the practice of using ashes as an external sign of repentance. By the late tenth century, it had become common practice in parts of Europe for the faithful to receive ashes at the beginning of Lent as a sign of personal and communal penitence. In 1091, Pope Urban II ordered that this ritual be required of all Christians. Shortly thereafter, the first day of Lent became known as Ash Wednesday.

Ashes, as a reminder of sin and death, of separation from God and one another, is a reminder of the preparation we need to do for our Lenten journey. A reminder of the need for almsgiving, prayer, and fasting that prepare us for the journey to Jerusalem. To prepare ourselves for the sobering events that will happen there. For there, the cross of ashes that we receive today, reminding us of sin and death, give way to the cross on Good Friday, whereby the power of sin and death are defeated. When the sin and death symbolized by the ashes we receive today are replaced with the forgiveness and new life of Easter.

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