HOMILY FOR ASH WEDNESDAY 2009
Shrove Tuesday 1982 represented my “Baptism” into ordained ministry. We had just settled in to our pancake dinner when someone came rushing into the community hall in a panic, saying that Mr Hebron (a parishioner) had been found lying face-down in the snow in his back yard.
Several of us, including his son-in-law, raced over there. Sure enough, there was Mr Hebron, face-down, motionless. We discovered later he might have been there for several hours. “He’s dead as a mackerel!” his son-in-law said. (ever since I have remained curious as to whether a mackerel has a specific and extra-convincing way of looking dead). However, I bent down near his face (whether to pray for him or looking for a sign of life, I don’t remember), and he stirred somewhat. “He’s not dead!”
Immediately, we proceeded to load Mr Hebron, still stretched out, stiff as a board, into the back seat of the son-in-law’s car, which, luckily, was a mid-70’s model large enough to accommodate an unbending, unconscious adult (Mr Hebron, that is) and me. We raced away to the nearest town with a hospital (30 km) away at an incredible speed, and when we got there, it was discovered that Mr Hebron had no pulse, no discernible heart beat, and his body temperature was so low they thought it might be hopeless.
But they commenced a warming process, and Mr Hebron not only responded, he thawed out nicely, and after some time in the hospital, resumed his life apparently in a better state than before his fall!
Let me say that one does not tend to forget such experiences, and it has shaped my understanding of Lent. It was a stark wake-up call to what the old Prayer Book called “the shortness and uncertainty of human life” (BCP p. 599. At times, people look at the Anglican Church and make pronouncements about its apparent demise, and that we’re the “frozen chosen,” etc. I am always happy to point out (sometimes to ourselves) that we’re not dead yet!
The warming process undertaken by the medical staff for Mr Hebron suggests to me what Lent is truly about – a process of gently moving people toward the warmth of God’s redeeming love, moving toward Easter, and using Lent as an opportunity to shed the layers of protection and security we use to fend off the largely imagined coldness of the world.
Lent begins with an invitation into the desert – the wilderness — into those empty, unexplored and fearful places, the places that scare us, the places over which we have no control or power, the places where false ways of being are mercilessly exposed, with the aim of finding within us our own true power and purpose. Figuratively, symbolically, we follow Jesus into the desert, to confront our own demons, to do spiritual battle with the misleading, diminishing influences in our lives.
The symbol of the sword (on my scapular) is a reminder that Lent is a struggle, even a battle, and the greatest and most difficult battle we have to fight is within ourselves, between our tendency to make the world our servant, and the call to offer ourselves faithfully; between our ego and our soul. We know that Jesus liberates, brings joy and peace. But we also know that he brought the sword of truth, and we know that his journey toward liberation and peace leads through the Cross. It leads through conflict, pain, doubt and fear. As someone has said: “Without the Cross, there is no Resurrection.” For Jesus, the time in the desert was a “defining moment.” Each Lent presents us with a similar opportunity.
I understand the reluctance of people to engage Lent. We observe today the Imposition of Ashes, in which we willingly take upon ourselves a symbol and reminder of our own mortality, and the grim, inexorable fact of death. We begin with death, but believe me, we are moving toward life. Lent is an imposition, but it nudges us toward an integration of those things we would rather avoid than face. There is a spirit of “letting go” during Lent – relaxing our tight and anxious grip on things like money, possessions, status, prejudices, etc. which we have accumulated, acknowledging them as false securities, and admitting that they don’t really define who we are at the core of our being. It is a voluntary act of dying in the sense of leaving behind us those things, attitudes, or connections which we admit bind and define us, much as a butterfly leaves behind its old chrysalis in order to become more fully what it is. To achieve this end, some people undertake disciplines of giving significant things up for this time, or of taking on such things as reading, meditation, outreach and volunteer work, etc.
Sr. Melanie Svoboda (in “Parish Life” Feb. 2006) said: “Our fasting during Lent should be integral to our daily living. Some people choose to do only ‘tacked-on penances.’ Rather than looking at their daily life to find sacrifices they could embrace, they opt for penances that are extraneous to their lives. A man might be a workaholic, for example, but gives up chocolate for Lent. Wouldn’t it be a more fitting penance for him to ‘fast’ from his work and spend more time with his family?
Healthy penance flows from our relationships, responsibilities and religious convictions. Some examples of this type of penance are the following: to drive more compassionately, to be more patient with coworkers, to be kinder to store clerks, to visit an elderly relative or friend, to be honest in all our dealings, to slow down, to extend forgiveness, to do a favour for a neighbour, to volunteer at the parish, to count blessings.”
The wisdom is solid: any practice which can be maintained for that length of time has a very good chance of becoming ingrained as part of our ongoing lifestyle. We are invited to use the time of Lent creatively, shaping our Lenten disciplines according to our real issues/needs: Are you constantly angry? Then try giving up anger during Lent. Are you always negative? Then focus on being positive. Are you stingy? Practice being generous (leave someone a big tip; double your church pledge, etc.). Are you anxious, controlling, perfectionistic? Try letting go, or attempt a new relaxation or meditation technique that helps you disengage from the symptom, and gives you time and space to address the deeper issues. I’m sure you get the general drift of all this.
Lent is not meant to be merely a legalistic obligation, nor is it a competition with others. In Lent, we are obliged to focus within – to take Jesus’ advice and examine the log in our own eye that obscures our vision, and justifies our taking a dim view of others. Individuals who never face into the conflict within themselves, can never be effective in reconciling conflicts in their relationships or in society at large, but just keep repeating the same patterns of projection, blame, frustration, anger and failure.
Lent is an acknowledgement that it’s difficult to be with Jesus. Following him, taking up our “cross,” is difficult. The wilderness/desert is not somewhere we willingly go. But if we enter it in faith, we find we are not alone, any more than Jesus was alone – we discover the Spirit is present, giving us inner strength and clarity of mind. In Lent we journey with the Cross, whether carrying it or in its shadow. The Cross reminds us of human evil, fear and futility, but it is also a reminder that there is no length to which God will not go to reach us – that no one is beyond the scope of the love of God.
In Lent, we are invited on a journey, which by definition is the intention to end up somewhere else than where we are at present; it is an intention to move forward toward a goal/destination. It can be as much of an adventure as you are willing to allow. In Lent, we journey, figuratively, into the desert, not just for deprivation or self-abasement, but for clarification of purpose, deeper reliance upon and awareness of the living God, and renewal of life. Lent is a great opportunity for transformation. I invite you to a holy Lent, a meaningful and moving time of taking up your “cross,” whatever is deadening your life, and beginning to walk in the direction of Jesus and the new life God offers through Christ.
The Rev. Grant Rodgers