Ash Wednesday – March 5, 2014
Preacher: The Rev. Samuel J. Smith, Assistant Priest, St. Michael’s Church
Good evening, and welcome to St. Michael’s for one of the most unique liturgies of the church year. One commentator has said that, “Ash Wednesday is the day that Christians attend their own funerals.”
This is the day that we remember our mortality: Tonight we recognize that our time on earth is limited, and that we would be wise to turn our heads toward making the most of that short time.
To put it perhaps more simply, another commentator has said, “This is national get over yourself day – we are all going to die – And God loves us and it’s actually supposed to be that way (that we are mortal) and it’s not a punishment.”
This reminder of our mortality is a fit way to begin the season of Lent – a good way to prepare to travel the road to Jerusalem with Jesus, to prepare to comprehend and take into our hearts the enormity of Jesus’ crucifixion and resurrection.
If you grew up in the church, perhaps you have some long-held understandings about how we should undertake this preparation – how we should go about having a Holy Lent.
I would like to suggest that, perhaps more than any other liturgical season, Lent carries a lot of baggage.
Brother Curtis Almquist of the Society of St. John the Evangelist says that Lent is a time for “clearing out debris in our soul’s closet as we prepare for Easter.”[i] And Mark Sandlin, a Presbyterian minister from Greensboro, NC, said this in a recent blog entry:
“The idea behind Lent is to take a look at our lives, to do an honest assessment of our journey to [and] toward [and] with God and to repent of the things that are distancing us from God – to turn away from those things.”
Sandlin goes on to say that he dreads the inevitable question of the season: “What did you give up for Lent?” He admits that, in most years past, he gave up something really just to feel more holy.
He wanted to be sure to have a good answer to that dreaded question. Being able to reply with a worthy sacrifice was a benchmark of righteousness, a sort of spiritual one-upsmanship: “I’ll see your night-time glass of red wine and raise you red meat and the bliss of zoning out to American Idol.”
Some of us were taught that this sacrifice of something we love was about participating in the suffering of Christ – identifying with the sacrifice that Jesus made for us.
But suffering is not what Christ’s death was about. God did not require his son to suffer – that certainly happened, but it was not the focus.
So perhaps the deprivation that comes with giving something up may take us down, well not the wrong path, but perhaps one that is tangled and might not take us to the goal we ultimately hope to reach.
Instead, I would like to suggest that, as we move toward the most sacred days of the Christian Calendar – toward Holy Week, and Easter – it might be more productive to reassess our relationship to God, and, more specifically, to try to strengthen that relationship.
I wonder if Chocolate or Wine or Facebook are really the things distancing us from God. I invite you to think about your journey with God, and what gets in the way of that journey. And then to consider what you could change in your life that would better facilitate that journey.
Mark Sandlin suggests that you shouldn’t pick something that you know you can do. Instead, it should be something that you might not succeed at—something that is really a challenge, something that could really make a difference.
There are lots of possibilities. Perhaps you might think of a word that you want to wipe out of your vocabulary—possible candidates are “can’t” or “unfair” or “stupid” or “hate.” A member of one parish I served told me that she was considering memorizing a psalm for Lent, so that it could always be at her disposal, especially in moments of crisis when it is especially needed.
Evelyn Underhill, a well-known mystic and writer from the early 20th century, said this:
“As to your Lent—no physical hardships beyond what normal life provides—but take each of these as serenely and gratefully as you can and make of them your humble offerings to God. Don’t reduce sleep. Don’t get up in the cold. Practice more diligently the art of turning to God with some glance or phrase of love or trust at all spare moments of the day…
“Be specially kind and patient with those who irritate you… Instead of wasting energy in being disgusted with yourself, accept your own failures, and just say to God ‘Well, in spite of all I may say or fancy, this is what I am really like—so please help my weakness.’ This, not self-disgust, is the real and fruitful humility.”[ii]
Here’s the bottom line: We are called today to be really honest with ourselves and with God about our own mortality and about our earnest desire to live better, more meaningful lives. Lent is a great opportunity to check our emotional and spiritual GPS, and reroute our course to be sure we are moving toward God. May each of us find the strength and the wisdom and the courage to undertake this daunting task. Amen.
[i] Shaw, Jane (2012-01-01). A Practical Christianity: Meditations for the Season of Lent (Kindle Location 61). Church Publishing. Kindle Edition.
[ii] Evelyn Underhill to A.B. Quinquagesima [Sunday before Ash Wednesday] , 1936, in The Letters of Evelyn Underhill, ed. Charles Williams (London and New York: Longmans, Green and co., 1943), p. 252, as quoted in Shaw Jane, ibid. (Kindle Locations 156-161)