3. Ash Wednesday
Matthew 6:1-6,16-21. Isaiah 58:1-12,
Have mercy on me, O God,
according to your steadfast love;
according to your abundant mercy
blot out my transgressions.
Wash me thoroughly from my iniquity,
and cleanse me from my sin.
For I know my transgressions,
and my sin is ever before me.
Against you, you alone, have I sinned,
and done what is evil in your sight,
so that you are justified in your sentence
and blameless when you pass judgment.
Indeed, I was born guilty,
a sinner when my mother conceived me.
You desire truth in the inward being;
therefore teach me wisdom in my secret heart.
Purge me with hyssop, and I shall be clean;
wash me, and I shall be whiter than snow.
Let me hear joy and gladness;
let the bones that you have crushed rejoice.
Hide your face from my sins,
and blot out all my iniquities.
Create in me a clean heart, O God,
and put a new and right spirit within me.
This is the day that marks the beginning of Lent. The season of Lent continues for 40 days plus the 6 Sundays prior to Easter Sunday. (The six Sundays are not part of Lent, for Sunday is always to be the day of the celebration of the Resurrection.)
It was a tradition for centuries during Lent to focus upon the sufferings of Christ. Jesus began his sufferings for us in the wilderness experience when he fasted for 40 days. The church recognized the supreme importance of his suffering and death and wanted to participate with Him in his sufferings. It is too easy to forget what is truly important, so the church guarantees 40 days of focus each year on the passion & death of our Lord.
This time was also seen as a time for spiritual renewal. Jesus fasted 40 days before he began his ministry. Moses and Elijah did the same. These 40 days are for the deepening of our lives and the deepening of our commitment to God in order that we too can effectively do His work.
So as we begin Lent on Ash Wednesday. In some traditions, at a service of communion, we take upon our foreheads the ashes of the charred remains of last year’s palm branches. The ashes speak of sin, guilt, grief, and mourning as we are reminded that our sins caused his death.
On this day the ashes are usually applied in the sign of the cross. It is to remind us of our commitment to Him who said, “If any one wants to be my disciple, let them deny themselves, take up their cross, and follow me.” It has been the custom then to attempt to implement this passage in two ways:
First we deny ourselves something that we value. We do not give up a particular sin, those we give up as soon as we discover them. In Lent we give up something we value. We deny ourselves something that pampers our life, so we can share instead in his sacrifice. It is one of the ways we can say “no” to consumerism and to all forms of greed and gluttony.
But we protest, we are not gluttons! But St. Thomas Aquinas reminds us that gluttons come in two types: the Gourmets and Gourmands. The gourmand loves to eats lots of food, and is interested in its quantity. The gourmand is usually grossly overweight. The gourmet eats only the best of foods with an eye for quality, and can be slim and sleek. But both are far more interested in food than is appropriate. It is good to say “no” to our overwhelming appetite for food, if only in token ways.
How do we implement this? Different strokes for different folks.
One of the ways we can perpetuate the theme of Ash Wednesday is
- to fast for one or more meals each week, or one whole day during the next 6 weeks.
- or reduce the amount of our consumption at meal times,
- or reduce the cost of our consumption when shopping.
- Perhaps taking a bag lunch to work rather than eating out.
- Perhaps ordering food from the least-costly end of the menu.
- Perhaps by denying ourselves a favorite food, like chocolate, coffee, or deserts.
But we not only deny ourselves, but we are also asked, secondly, we take up our cross.
We take on the sign of the cross at the beginning of the Lenten season, but we also take on something that we might not normally do. We take on a ministry to others that we might find difficult and demanding. For to take care of our own soul’s health during this season, and not take care at the same time of the needs of others is simply to deepen our selfishness and our self-righteousness.
So what can we add to our lives that might benefit others?
- Perhaps the money we save from refusing some foods for ourselves can be given to a food bank for the feeding of others.
- Perhaps we could visit those who are shut in, lonely, aged or ill.
- Perhaps we could write letters or emails to encourage people we know who are struggling with life.
- Perhaps we could spend more time in praying for the world’s great needs.
But, whatever we do during this season, it is too important a moment to waste in not improving the health of my soul or deepening my service to others. And so my friends, let us get creative and let us be courageous as we invest the next 6 weeks in the renewal of our lives and our community. Amen.