Ash Wednesday 2014
Joel 2:12-18; 2Cor 5:20-6:2; Mt 6:1-6,16-18
Our Ash Wednesday liturgy this morning is calling us both to conversion (“Repent and believe in the good news”) as well as to an awareness of our mortality (“Remember that you are dust and to dust you shall return”). But this does not create for us a sense of despair or anxiety because we know that the story ends with Easter. Rather, as our Rule states, we “look forward to holy Easter with joy and spiritual longing” because we know that Lent will bring us closer to wholeness, immortality, and the risen Christ. St Benedict sees Lent as a time of renewal and re-‘forming’ our lives by renouncing poor habits and adding good spiritual practices. The gospel, like the Rule, invites us to alms-giving, prayer, and greater ascesis.
I noticed a parallel in the first reading from the prophet Joel that adds light and depth to these three gospel precepts. The first precept Jesus gives to us is about almsgiving. Though our abbey does give material alms, we as individuals do not own anything and so we are unable to give personally any material gifts. This is part of our poverty but places even more importance on our prayer! But there is an almsgiving that each of us are called to do. Joel says God is “gracious and merciful” and we are called to be like God who is gracious and merciful. Each of us can give alms in the form of forgiveness…giving mercy wherever it is needed. This season challenges us to be gracious and to forgive. So where do I need to show mercy? Have I held anyone in bondage by my lack of forgiveness? This is the almsgiving we need to consider.
The second point Jesus speaks of is prayer. Joel tells us God is “slow to anger and rich in kindness”. This should give us great confidence and desire to approach and be with God. For He desires to lavish His abundant graces on us this season and is rich in kindness. In other words God wants to show us his love. God wants to nourish us, not to punish us. Br Simeon of Spencer said when we pray or do lectio what we are seeking at bottom is not mental information or moral guidance or even sentimental feelings that make us ‘feel’ the presence of God. What we seek deep within is the possibility of opening ourselves up in prayer to the transforming action of God. Whether conscious or not, we seek a change in life, a conversion from what is present to something more - something more like Christ. This is why contemplation is one of the boldest undertakings - a willingness to be dismantled and made anew. So this season challenges us to approach God in confidence praying, “Create in me a clean heart, O God, and put a new and right spirit within me”. I would like to encourage each of us to consciously add some additional prayer to your daily routine during Lent.
The third practice Jesus mentions is fasting. Joel tells us God is “relenting” and so we are given an opportunity to give up those things that keep us from God. God relents so we can repent. Paul tells us to work together to reconcile with God. What is it I need to fast from? A behavior? An attitude? A thought that keep me in a rut or out of reality? We fast to bring us closer to God and so what good is fasting with food if we are not fasting from the real things that keep us from attentiveness and desire for God and the coming of the kingdom? Joel advises us that external gestures must always be matched by a sincere heart and consistent behavior. Indeed what use is it to tear our garments if our hearts remain distant from the Lord? So this season challenges us to let go of things that waste our time and purpose – to renounce those habits that take our focus away from Christ.
All three of these practices (almsgiving, prayer, fasting) can really be summed up as “a turning” – “a turning to the Lord” or what we call conversion. Lent is like our vow of conversion under a microscope. This is what Lent is about…turning to God by giving our self away freely – offering our self and making our very being the alms we give to the Lord and to each other. It is also by prayer that we go deeper into the heart and thus turn closer to the Lord…BUT we must fast from those things that keep us from turning towards God.
As we know from our Rule, conversion requires both a worker and a workshop. The workshop can be nowhere else than in the heart of the monk, and the worker has to be someone with access to that heart…who can get inside the workshop! No one can do that for us, we are the only one who can enter our heart to find God…a God who is rich in kindness, gracious, relenting and merciful. We must go in secret to that inner chamber and descend into the heart. An authentic descent into this secret chamber will bring us to the humble reality of our tininess but it will also bring us to God who patiently awaits us. It is God who will “enlarge our hearts” when we receive him there.
As well as receiving ashes today, we will also receive our Lenten books this morning. I really enjoy this monastic practice and I always feel like we are getting a Christmas present to begin our Lenten journey. It is a present that will take 40 days to unwrap! Each day’s reading is an opportunity to receive a word from Jesus Christ. Each day’s reading is an opportunity to receive Jesus’ true Presence into our laps; into our hands!. What better gift could we receive? I hope that your Lenten book does this for you, as well as help you on the pathway through any of your own small Calvary’s…into Easter Joy. May this ritual add to the positive energy, spiritual longing, and enthusiasm for each of you this Lenten Season…and may you enjoy unwrapping your gift…Jesus Christ Himself!