Ash Wednesday – March 1, 2017 – St Mark’s Episcopal Church
In the Name of God: Our Creator, Our Redeemer, and our Comforter. Amen.
My brothers and sisters, we are in a moment of seasonal change, in the Church. We have put away the season of the Epiphany: the Alleluia banners have been put into storage, and the word alleluia itself will not be rspoekn in this space for the next 5 weeks. We have retired the Gloria in Excelsis.
We have come to a new season in the Church Year, the season of Lent.
But what is the season of Lent? There are lots of folks on this Ash Wednesday who have a ready answer, if you asked them today. They would say that Lent is the season of the Church Year that makes it possible for us to have Mardi Gras. In New Orleans and Venice, where they call it Carnevale, and in many other places around the world, the weeks and days leading up to Ash Wednesday and to Lent are one continuous festival. And Lent makes all that possible.
But there is more to the answer than that, of course. As is often the case, The Book of Common Prayer is especially helpful to us. As your Celebrant for this occasion, The Book of Common Prayer will tell me, in a minute, I will be instructed to read to you what the Book of Common Prayer calls an invitation “to the observance of a holy Lent.”
I will then read you a brief history lesson about how in the early church “the days of our Lord’s passion and resurrection” were observed “with great devotion.”
“The days of our Lord’s passion and resurrection” are, of course what we remember and participate in through the main services of Holy Week – Maundy Thursday, Good Friday, and the Easter Vigil. They are called – collectively – a fancy word, the Triduum – just means “The Three Days” — but these three services are the summit of the Liturgical Year, the summit of the Church Year.
After I’ve emphasized the importance of the “days of our Lord’s passion and resurrection.” I will go on to say that “it became the custom of the Church to prepare” for these services of remembrance and commemoration “by a season of penitence and fasting.”
Which brings us to today, and to Lent, the season in the Church year into which we now enter.
The challenge the Book of common Prayer gives me today is to explain Lent to Cyou in a simple and coherent way, helping you to understand what it means to prepare for Holy Week “by a season of penitence and fasting,” and by “prayer, fasting, and self-denial.”
The question before me, however, is how, exactly, do I do this? The challenges I’m having is that Lent is really complicated.
I’m also called on to inspire you to “lament your sins and acknowledge your wretchedness,” so that you may achieve “true repentance,’ so as to earn God’s pardon and absolution so that your lives may be pure and holy and “at the last you may come to his eternal joy.”
Please notice that I’m instructed to do this by the Book of Common Prayer, even though the BCP also instructs that we should read for this occasion the words of the prophet Isaiah, in which we are told that the kind of fast that the Prayer Book calls for with its emphasis on “humbling ourselves, and bowing down the head and lying in sackcloth and ashes, “ is not, in Isaiah’s view, a fast acceptable to the Lord.”
So there is a diversity of opinion about Lent, right there in the Prayer Book.
Here is another, perhaps the most important, example of what makes iour talk about Lent very complicated.
Essential to what we do here today is to take part in the ancient Christian Ash Wednesday ritual of giving and receiving ashes, to remind us that we are dust, and to dust we shall return. The Prayer Book tells us that this anointing with ashes is about “making a right beginning of repentance” and as “a mark of our mortal nature.”
So the purpose of the ritual of anointing with ashes is to confront us with our own mortality. The imposition of ashes is a very real and tactile way of reminding ourselves that we are dust and to dust we shall return.
Yet, we always read at this service Jesus’ instruction to his disciples, in which Jesus tells his followers to do exactly the opposite of what we are about to do.
Jesus says, “Whenever you fast, do not look dismal, like the hypocrites, for they disfigure their faces so as to show others that they are fasting. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward.
“But when you fast, put oil on your head and wash your face, so that your 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.”
All that talk in the Prayer Book about sin and repentance and mortality, and all the traditions we inherit about Lent as a time for giving up things, and denying ourselves the joys and pleasures of life, and here Jesus says, “don’t look dismal.” Don’t be glum.”
So when we put the services for Ash Wednesday next to the readings appointed for the day, we find that the Prayer Book asks us on this day of seasonal change, to hold two sets of ideas about Lent together in our minds – Lent as a time for “penitence and fasting and prayer and self-denial” and Lent as a time for cleaning up, and taking a bath, and putting on a happy face.
All the advice I’ve been able to find about how to keep a Holy Lent is similarily paradoxical.
Some advice says the work of Lent is done by diredctiong our attention to God. I’ve been advised this week to think of Lent in terms of the words of a Priest of the Church of England named Percy Dearmer, who wrote about Lent in the early years of the 20th century. For Dearmer, Lent is a time to draw closer to God and be transformed by the experience, discerning, as Dearmer puts it, God’s beauty.
“To bow the head, in sackcloth or in ashes, or rend the soul, such grief is not Lent’s goal; but to be led to where God’s glory flashes, his beauty to come nigh, to fly where truth and light do lie.”
Lent’s goal, for Dearmer, is to find our way to “where God’s glory flashes, his beauty to come nigh, to fly where truth and light do lie.”
On the other hand, if I may borrow a bit from last Sunday’s sermon on the transfiguration, and on Irenaeus, may I remind those of you who were here on Sunday and inform those of you who weren’t, that Ireneaeus, in meditating on Jesus’ transfiguration was drawn to understand the Transfiguration, and what he came to was the exact opposite of a sense of God’s separation from us.
Instead, Irenaeus directs our attention to us, to us as human beings, and to what is revealed about us by the transfiguration of the very human Jesus. Instead of seeing Jesus’ transfiguration as being about Jesus’ connection to God, Irenaeus directs our attention to what is says about Jesus’ connection to us.
What Irenaeus came to was the belief that “the glory of God is a live human being and a truly human life is the vision of God.”
For Irenaeus, Lent is about coming to see ourselves not as we see ourselves in our limits and frailties, but about learning to see Jesus, and with Jesus to see ourselves, as God sees us.
This understanding reminds me of another image for Lent, ann image I learned from Greg Jones a priest who for a long time was the Dean of Grace Cathedral in San Francisco. Jones said years ago, the purpose of Lent is to help us see ourselves as God sees us, and from God’s eyes, we go through the world proceeded and followed by angels who proclaim for all to hear, “Behold, a child of God. Behold, a Child of God.”
In the words of Irenaeus, Lent is about coming to see that “The glory of God is a live human being and a truly human life is the vision of God.”
On the third hand (can you have a third hand?) In the words of Isaiah we heard read as the Old Testament Lesson for today, the prophet advises that the best way to fast is to attend to God’s ancient concern for others, for the poor, and the homeless, and the outsider:
“the fast that I choose:
is to loose the bonds of injustice,
to undo the thongs of the yoke,
to let the oppressed go free,
To share bread with the hungry,
and bring the homeless poor into your house;
when you see the naked, to cover them,
and not to hide yourself from your own kin?
Then your light shall break forth like the dawn,
and your healing shall spring up quickly;
your vindicator shall go before you,
the glory of the Lord shall be your rear guard.
Then you shall call, and the Lord will answer;
you shall cry for help, and he will say, Here I am.”
I like how all three of these visions of humanity, and of God, and of the purpose of Lent, I must say all these sound good to me, at various times of the day or night. I personally do not want to choose one or the other. I especially like how they all point us away from the traditional ways of observing Lent, which all seem to be very negative, about giving this or that up for Lent. They all carry with them very negative ways of thinking about ourselves as human beings.
Most of these involve giving up things that are not necessary to life but help make life more bearable or enjoyable. Lent is not a good time of the year for people who sell chocolate, or ice cream, or alcoholic beverages.
If you choose to observe Lent by giving something up, my first impulse is to ask that, please, find something to give up that is not merely trivial. But then I remember that the denial form of Lenten discipline leads folks in some cultures to engage in practices that seek to mortify, or discipline the flesh.
But I pause before giving advice like that because one always finds folks who let you know that one should engage in practices that are truly meaningful, and doing without this or that is what lets them know its Lent.
But to make things even more complicated, all the advocates of the various forms of Lenten discipline put conditions on things. They are advocates for this or that practice, and they insist that one needs to make the right choice, because if one makes the right choice, then good things will happen.
Advice we get about keeping a Holy Lent tends to take the form of saying, “don’t do Lent this way. Do it that way instead. But you’ve got to get it right to get your reward.”
I propose to work our way through this paradox a bit, if I can, by pointing out that the Prayer Book reminds us that we approach Lent from the perspective of Holy Week.
Lent is a time for preparation for Holy Week. Lent is not an end in itself, but a means to Holy Week.
Every time I think that things depend on me, that I must make the right choice about Lent if I want to find favor with God, I find it good to remember the words of another of the Church Fathers, Gregory of Nyssa, who wrote that that
The Christian life is about avoiding a wicked life because we fear punishment, like slaves;
nor to do good because we expect repayment, as if cashing in on the virtuous life by enforcing some business deal.
On the contrary, disregarding all those good things which we do hope for and which God has promised us, we regard our relationship with God as the only thing that is really important.
And I like to remember that Holy Week is coming, and that we will proclaim in the darkness of Easter Saturday night — that in this blessed night God acts to overcome everything that separates us from God, that heaven and earth are joined, and we are reconciled to God.
It is God who acts, and what Lent is about is preparing ourselves to hear that, to experience that, to understand that. Lent is not about earning favor with God, but about preparing to hear that God has chosen us to associate with, that god has chosen to overcome everything that separates us from God.
There are many paths we could take on that journey. But they all lead to the same place.
They lead to our encounter with God, in the feet we wash on Maundy Thursday, and the new commandment we are taught, to love one another, and with the meal that Jesus invites us to, even as he invited his disciples to take the Bread and break it, and the cup and bless it, and to share them among ourselves.
They lead to our encounter with God, in the betrayal of Jesus in the garden, and his trial, and his crucifixion, as Jesus makes sure that there is nothing in heaven or earth that is human about our lives that Jesus has not already experienced.
They lead to our encounter with God in the tomb that is empty, and the new fire that is lighted, when heaven and earth are joined, and God acts to reconcile us to him.
That’s where we are going. That’s where the path through the next few weeks is leading us.
So find the path from here to Holy Week that works for you. Which path we take probably doesn’t matter in the end. What may matter, in the words of the English poet George Herbert, is that with God, the beauty lies in the discovery.