St. Michael’s Episcopal Church
Albuquerque New Mexico
Preacher: Christopher McLaren
Ash Wednesday has arrived with the March winds and the blessing of snow in the mountains. We are gathered here in the quiet of this place surrounded by family, brothers and sisters in Christ, old and new, known and unknown to begin our 40 day adventure of Lent. Over the years I’ve found that people love Lent. They look forward to it as an intentional time to become attentive to their own spiritual life. It is a welcome time to become reflective, to take stock of our lives, to slow-down in order to pay attention to the movement of our hearts, to become aware of our souls hunger for God.
There are classical ways that the faithful have used for centuries to embrace Lent. You can hear them in the distinctive invitation to a Holy Lent that we will hear in just a few minutes.
I invite you, therefore, in the name of the Church, to the observance of a holy Lent, by self-examination and repentance; by prayer, fasting, and self-denial; and by reading and meditating on God's holy Word.
- The Lenten Invitation from the Book of Common Prayer.
These classic ways of opening ourselves up to God have much to offer.
Self-examination can be a transformative. What would it mean to take stock of your life by evaluating your own physical, mental and spiritual health this Lent? Or perhaps you sense in the Lent a time to consider where you are in your relational health with your partner or your friends? Are there areas you desire to work on, conversations you need to have, or forgiveness you need to offer? How is it with your soul this day? Perhaps it is time to get your spiritual journal out once again, to make an appointment with your spiritual director or to finally seek out the counseling you’ve been avoiding?
Repentance. Do you need a fresh start? Are there things that you need to let go of so that you can start moving forward again toward health and wholeness? The biblical understanding of repentance isn’t about feeling bad about yourself, it is about realizing that you have no reason to be trapped in your past because in God’s steadfast love there are always second chances. Repentance is not dwelling on our past failures but rather about seeing how hopeful the future really is with God. Perhaps this Lent it would help you to make a confession, to embrace the Sacrament of Reconciliation of a Penitent as a way to move forward through things that you are holding you back from truly embracing the life God has in front of you?
Prayer. Perhaps what you really sense is a desire to be in a deeper conversation with God. Maybe you really want to embrace prayer this Lent, to cultivate a lively conversation with God in your own life. There is really no substitute for time to listen deeply and to share the important stories of your heart with God. The truth is that God wants to know you and be known by you and is looking for ways to cultivate a deeper intimacy. If you have this sense you are already alive to the loving movement of God toward you. Perhaps you will find a welcome place to explore your own prayer life at the contemplative prayer group on Monday nights or through one of the small groups reading An Altar in the World this Lent.
Fasting, an almost lost discipline in our culture, is an ancient spiritual practice designed to help us get in touch with our own need of God while at the same time recognizing that our bodies are gifts from God and need to be lovingly cared for. The truth is that we have other hungers beyond food and fasting can help us get in touch with our deeper needs. We have other appetites that need to be fed, most importantly our need for relationship with God. Perhaps exploring this ancient discipline is just what you need to discover your own deep hunger for the things of God in your daily life.
There are other kinds of fasting as well. Listen to these powerful words from Isaiah we heard today:
Is not this the fast that I choose: to loose the bonds of injustice, to undo the thongs of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free, and to break every yoke? Is it not to share your 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. (Isaiah 58)
For weeks now a very dedicated group of people have been up in Santa Fe almost every day advocating for the most vulnerable in our society, children, immigrants, the deaf, the unemployed and this too is a kind of spiritual discipline God calls us into because caring for and defending the most vulnerable is close to the heart of God.
Self-denial, it sounds like so much fun. I had a college professor who claimed he gave up self-denial every year for Lent. I never quite bought it. Why do we discipline our own appetites, refuse to satisfy all our own desires or needs? For many reasons but chiefly to help us focus on what is really important in our lives, to simplify or do without helps us to consider what we really need, what is really important, what will really satisfy our souls. It also helps us to understand how blessed we are to realize how much we can really do without, how simple life can become, or how much we can actually give away of our selves and our possessions. Life is really not about us, it is about being God’s person in the world and self-denial can help us discover this.
The Lenten invitation offers us a rich array of choices to pursue a deeper and more honest spiritual life. It is not about pretending to be holy or trying to fool ourselves. It really is about getting real with God, not being afraid to admit that we actually belong to Christ. In baptism we are sealed by the Holy Spirit and marked as Christ’s own forever. It is the same powerful gesture that Lent offers us this day.
I think that there is a lot of confusion around the ashes imposed on this day. What are these ashes a symbol of? To be sure they are a symbol of our mortality but is that all? Are the words, “Remember that you are dust and to dust you shall return” meant to be as one theologian put it a kind of “sacrament of death” (as if such a thing were possible). Not at all. To be sure the ashes connect us to the earth to which our bodies will return eventually. But that is not what Ash Wednesday is about.
The cross with which the ashes are traced upon us, is the sign of Christ’s victory over death. It is not a symbol of death but rather of new life. The cross is the place of God’s ultimate victory. The cross, in all of its pain and suffering, is the place where we discover that God is indeed the lover of our souls and is willing to sacrifice anything to draw us back to himself. So this day is not about our coming death but rather about the new life offered to us in realizing that we belong to God. As we face our own mortality on Ash Wednesday we do so in the sure and certain hope that we belong to God, A God whose love is more powerful than death, more powerful than our failures, more powerful than our egos, more powerful than our brokenness, more powerful than our hilarious attempts at being perfect.
Ash Wednesday is a simple but profound reminder that even in our finitude we belong to God. The ashen cross we take upon our bodies this day is nothing less than a reminder that the steadfast love of the Lord never ceases, God’s mercy never comes to an end. You never cease to belong to God, not even death can change that. This is good news of Ash Wednesday. This is the meaning of that holy smudge on your forehead. You belong to God and always will.