Homily for Ash Wednesday 2011

LENT: A PILGRIMAGE TO LIFE

Ash Wednesday is serious stuff, in that it is a reminder of mortality, not  just mortality in general, but our own, and that’s not a place where most of us like to dwell.  But in Lent, as they say in the meditation biz, we are required to “just sit with it” for a while. 

The ashes are a reminder of fire that once burned brightly and hot – ashes are only remnants – signs of something that was —  and as such may remind us of younger days, the passion of youth, the burning desires and ideals that once motivated us. They might remind us that we are a remnant people.  And they warn us that fire, untended, can go out. 

For us on this day, the ashes become a symbol of the spiritual journey which begins in death and leads toward life.  There is no life that does not encompass death. 

I don’t believe Lent is a time to go moping about, playing victim, making a show of being deprived.  We are largely clear of that self-hating theology which obliged people of earlier times to torture themselves during this season.  We are reminded at the outset of this service (in the opening Collect) that God does not despise anything.  As someone said “God doesn’t make junk” (with the possible exception of the mosquito, of course). 

 “The Imposition of Ashes” is a confusing term. The ashes are not imposed – it’s voluntary.  The Church no longer imposes much of anything on people.  The ashes need to be received voluntarily, as a gift – as an expression of reality and truth in a world so full of hype and deception.  In Lent, Christians begin by embracing their mortality, dropping out of the delusional game of trying to avoid aging, of trying to avoid appearing to be what we are, of denying that suffering and death are actually essential aspects of life.  I don’t think you can see through to immortality without opting out of the massive exercise in denial that has become ingrained in our culture.

Ash Wednesday is a reminder of mortality while being a summons to new life.  Lent is about dying to Death, that is, departing from things which encumber and stress and distract us, and it is about coming to life.  Lent is a renewing and re-dedicating of our journey which leads toward Life – that Life we find in the person of Christ.  One online writer out it this way: “I worry that my Lenten disciplines have too often devolved into self-improvement experiments. I’d like to have my Lenten be a time of spiritual deepening and preparation for Easter, not just a religious veneer over a quest for thinner thighs.” 

Jesus taught that we must stop obsessing about what we wear and how we look and what we eat.  He asks, “Are YOU not of more value than that?”  (see Matthew 6: 25—34).  We may hope so, but we are often so concerned about externals that who we are gets lost in the shuffle and layered over. 

As I look back at recent history and remember the fashions of former days, I remember how desperate people were to be “in style,” whether it was the Brylcreemed ducktail haircuts or beehive hairdos of the 50’s and 60’s, the platform shoes or lime green polyester leisure suits of the 1970’s or the parachute pants, the mullets and the big hair of the 1980’s.  They look ridiculous now, but at that moment, we had to have it. Did we ever wonder: Why?  As Ecclesiastes said: “Vanity!  It’s all vanity!”   

Lent is an opportunity to step aside, or step back a bit, and try to gain some perspective on our life. I don’t think that means purposely getting a bad haircut or not wearing deodorant just to be weird for a while, but to take the opportunity and the incentive to begin to pay attention, to concentrate on becoming aware of how caught up we are by fashion, opinion, convention, and how afraid we are to be ourselves. 

As the purple crocuses blooming outside the parish office reminded me today: Lent is a time for growth – it is a reminder of the call to become what we most truly are. 

In the Middle Ages, Lent became known as a time for pilgrimages, which usually meant physically going somewhere.  That’s typically how they are understood today.  But important as those may have been, the mystical writer Walter Hilton suggested a new style of pilgrimage, not necessarily an overt one, but a journey to the interior of our own life, to the “heavenly city” that resides within, in a quest for our soul – for the heart of who we are.   That kind of pilgrimage might be achieved by walking a labyrinth, sitting in the garden; listening to music, reading a meaningful book, or devoting some time each day to prayer and meditation. 

To find that soul place, to make that discovery, sometimes requires a stripping away of layers – layers of roles and routines; layers of possessions and status; layers of attitudes and habits – in a courageous search for the truth about who we are, and the truth is that we are always more, not less, than we think we are, but we have to make that journey to discover it, to be able to realize the image of God, the reflection of the Creator, in us. 

Think and discern how you might use this valuable time.  What is it you need to pay attention to, or work to change?  Where are the impediments and unnecessary stresses in your life?  Lent is just long enough of a period that real change can happen if you dedicate this time to it.  Don’t over-think it –  don’t try to change everything – pick something and form some discipline around that for the next few weeks.  Ask God for grace and encouragement, and move forward on your personal Lenten pilgrimage.   Create some goals, but let the results unfold as they may, because that is being faithful to the idea of Lent as a pilgrimage, rather than a program. 

So, in the traditional words, “I invite you to a holy Lent – by self-examination, penitence, prayer, fasting and alms-giving, and by reading and meditating upon the Word of God.” I invite you to make a new commitment to walking the Christian path, following Christ on the journey of faith, that leads us into life. 

The Rev. Grant Rodgers 

Appointed readings: 

Joel 2: 1—3; 12—17   Blow the trumpet in Zion;  sound the alarm on my holy mountain! Let all the inhabitants of the land tremble, for the day of the Lord is coming, it is near—  a day of darkness and gloom, a day of clouds and thick darkness!  Like blackness spread upon the mountains  a great and powerful army comes; their like has never been from of old, nor will be again after them in ages to come.  Fire devours in front of them, and behind them a flame burns. Before them the land is like the garden of Eden, but after them a desolate wilderness, and nothing escapes them. Yet even now, says the Lord,  return to me with all your heart, with fasting, with weeping, and with mourning;  rend your hearts and not your clothing. Return to the Lord, your God, for he is gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love, and relents from punishing. Who knows whether he will not turn and relent, and leave a blessing behind him, a grain-offering and a drink-offering for the Lord, your God?  Blow the trumpet in Zion; sanctify a fast; call a solemn assembly; gather the people.
Sanctify the congregation; assemble the aged; gather the children, even infants at the breast. Let the bridegroom leave his room, and the bride her canopy. Between the vestibule and the altar let the priests, the ministers of the Lord, weep. Let them say, ‘Spare your people, O Lord, and do not make your heritage a mockery,  a byword among the nations.  Why should it be said among the peoples, “Where is their God?”  

2 Corinthians 5: 20—6: 2   So we are ambassadors for Christ, since God is making his appeal through us; we entreat you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God. 21For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God. As we work together with him,* we urge you also not to accept the grace of God in vain. 2For he says, ‘At an acceptable time I have listened to you, and on a day of salvation I have helped you.’ See, now is the acceptable time; see, now is the day of salvation! 

Matthew 6: 1—6; 16—21 Beware of practising your piety before others in order to be seen by them; for then you have no reward from your Father in heaven. ‘So whenever you give alms, do not sound a trumpet before you, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and in the streets, so that they may be praised by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward. 3But when you give alms, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, 4so that your alms may be done in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you.  And whenever you pray, do not be like the hypocrites; for they love to stand and pray in the synagogues and at the street corners, so that they may be seen by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward. 6But whenever you pray, go into your room and shut the door and pray to your Father who is in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you.  ‘And whenever you fast, do not look dismal, like the hypocrites, for they disfigure their faces so as to show others that they are fasting. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward. 17But when you fast, put oil on your head and wash your face, 18so that your fasting may be seen not by others but by your Father who is in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you.   ‘Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust* consume and where thieves break in and steal; 20but store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust* consumes and where thieves do not break in and steal. 21For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.