A reflection for Lent 1
I invite you, therefore, in the name of the Church, to the observance of a holy Lent. On Ash Wednesday these words are followed by the imposition of ashes, and mark the beginning of Lent. The ashes remind us that we are human, made by God from the very substance of creation, remember you are dust and to dust you shall return.
All across the country this year Ash Wednesday services were cancelled, including here. So, this morning we offered each of you the opportunity to begin Lent with the imposition of ashes. A simple act, but it serves as a reminder that Lent has begun and we are called to make this time holy.
Once I have said these words I find them echoing in my head. And in the reverberations of my mind I think….what does it mean to observe a holy Lent? And, am I doing it?
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Thankfully the Ash Wed liturgy points toward what this might mean by laying out the following criteria:
We are to observe a holy Lent by doing the following:
Fasting and self-denial
Reading and meditating on God’s holy word.
Ok. But what does this really mean?
Self-examination means, simply, that we pay attention to our lives. It doesn’t mean that we beat ourselves up and exaggerate all our failings. It does mean that we pay attention to what we do, what we say, how we act, each and every day.
Repentance – oh, here is a word filled with all kinds of connotations. What do we really mean when we speak of repentance? We mean the act of turning to God, or, returning to God after a break in the relationship. Repentance literally means turning away from sin and turning back to God. Repentance follows an honest self-examination and an acknowledgement of our sin.
Ok. Now there is another loaded word. What is sin? Over the years we have talked about what sin is and what it is not… sin is not some behavior we can point our finger at. Sin is not finger pointing at “wrong” behavior because behavior is always culturally bound – what is deemed good or wrong in one era may not be good or wrong in another.
But what is always important, always relevant, and never limited by time or place – our relationship with God, with self, and with others. Essentially, sin is broken relationship in all its forms – broken with our family and friends, broken with our neighbors, broken with strangers we meet and ignore. Sin is broken relationship with God.
Our Gospel reading this morning describes the very human ways Jesus is tempted to break relationships with God, self, and others. Break relationship by emphasizing personal power, glory, and greatness over relationships of love and care. This reading points us look at the ways we have broken relationships with God. The various ways we may reject God in our lives or the ways we push God aside for other things – things that fill our busy lives and help us believe that we don’t have time for God.
Prayer – well prayer may feel like something we think we ought to know how to do – but never actually do – or we worry that we will pray badly or somehow pray “wrong”…how do we pray? Mary Oliver the Nobel Peace Prize poet describes prayer this way:
It doesn’t have to be
The blue iris it could be
Weeds in a vacant lot, or a few
Small stones; just
Pay attention, then patch
A few words together and don’t try
To make them elaborate, this isn’t
A contest but the doorway
Into thanks, and a silence in which
Another voice may speak.
Prayer does not need to be perfect, nor poetic, nor grand. Prayer is simple. We offer to God who we are in words or in silence. Often times it is enough that we just sit down for a few minutes and say, “God, here I am.” And then be silent.
Fasting and self-denial – these speak to a process by which we empty ourselves of the stuff of life and open ourselves to God. Fasting may be from food or drink – but it also may be from simply being too busy. Imagine your Lenten discipline being a fast from busyness.
Reading and meditating on God’s holy word. Well, this one is easily done if we come to church on Sunday. Here we are able to hear the Word spoken and the preacher breaking open that word so that it is relevant to the lives we live. Scripture tells the story of the people of God and their lived experiences with God. Scripture opens up for us the struggles of a people of faith and the joys and sorrows experienced by people seeking God.
Lent is traditionally a season of preparation for Easter. We prepare ourselves by looking at who we are and what we are doing. We prepare ourselves by following Jesus in the final days of his life and learning from him what it means to be a person of faith.
Lent is traditionally a season of preparing candidates for baptism. In the early church, following two years of teaching, adults entered their final phase of preparation to become Christian during the season of Lent.
From the beginning of my call here as your priest you all have said to me that you want me to baptize with an open and generous spirit. You do not want me to limit baptism to some set of criteria. You want me to baptize. I have found that to be an amazing act of hospitality. I have taken this seriously and baptized generously. Most recently we participated in the baptism last Sunday at St. Nicholas, of my God-daughters. Baptized by the Presiding Bishop in a festive celebration - in an incredible service of joy and hospitality.
And, now today, even on this first day of Lent, we will baptize a young boy. He desires this baptism and for a variety of reasons this day is the best day to do so. And so we will.
We will baptize him in the waters that flow from the rocks of Lent. In these rocks we symbolize the ruggedness of our journey, the challenges and temptations of our faith. The baptismal water that symbolically flows from these rocks into the font remind us that God pours God’s self out for us. In the middle of the water stands a bowl of ashes, another sign of life coming forth from what seems to us to be charred remnants. From the ashes come the rocks, from the rocks come the water, from the water comes life.
In the ancient church there lived a group of people praying in the desert. They went to the desert to find solace and quiet, to get away from the busyness of the city, they went to the desert to pray. One of these desert people was named Poemen. He was called Abba Poemen, or Father Poemen, a leader of a desert community. He said this about water and rocks:
"the nature of water is yielding, and that of a stone is hard. Yet if you hang a bottle filled with water above the stone so that the water drips drop by drop, it will wear a hole in the stone. In the same way the word of God is tender, and our hearts are hard. So when people hear the word of God, frequently their hearts are opened to the presence of God."
This baptism this morning stands as a reminder that, more often than not, the temptations we experience actually harden us to God. But God pursues us, slowly, like drops of water on rocks. This baptism comes because this child and this family desire and have decided that now is the time. God is speaking in their lives and this is the response. Out of the rocks, out of the barrenness of this winter season, come living water. This water will not be stilled by us. This water will not be contained by humanity, no matter what we do or how we try. Not even by the human imposition of tradition. This living water represents the love of God which flows forth at all times. And for Christians it is the living water that gives us new life in Christ and names us as God’s. Baptism is the beginning of the relationship. For each of us here today baptism is the real invitation into observing a holy Lent.
In baptism we are washed in the waters of love. A sign of the cross is marked on our foreheads with the sacred oil, the chrism.. The cross of ashes is traced over the cross of oil and reminds us each and every year who we are and whose we are. Each time we come for prayers of healing and anointing another cross is traced in oil. And so it goes, layer upon layer, the mark is traced on us. Through the temptations of life which seek to pull us away from God this mark remains, indelible, ever present. Remember you are dust. Remember you are Christ’s.