Thursday, February 18, 2021

Ash Wednesday, 2021: Choosing Lent


Lectionary: Joel 2:1-2,12-17;  Psalm 103 or 103:8-14;  2 Corinthians 5:20b-6:10Matthew 6:1-6,16-21

En el nombre del Dios, que es Trinidad en unidad – In the name of God who is Trintiy in unity. Amen. 

Ash Wednesday marks the first day of Lent – my favorite liturgical season. On this day, no matter how terrible the present times may seem, we ring the church bells (as it were) and call everyone together to pray and listen for God’s call to us to return with all our hearts.

We mark the sign of the cross of Christ on our foreheads with the dust of ashes – the traditional symbol of repentance and humility before God. This is the first act of sanctifying ourselves, the outward sign that says we are ready to step out of the center of our own attention and mindfully, voluntarily, and humbly turn our attention to God.

Lent is not a time for us to wallow in the misery of our wretchedness as hopeless sinners and we don’t fast in order to suffer, or as punishment for sin. We fast to allow ourselves to experience emptiness. In the deep, dark center of ourselves, we willingly choose to make space for something new, something nourishing and life-giving that God will supply. That is what our Lenten journey is about.

The gift of practicing a holy Lent is that when we stop and make time to get honest about God we remember that God is full of compassion, slow to anger, forgives us, and cares for us deeply, intimately, with a love that knows no bounds. Our creator knows our frailties and knows we’ll sin, yet God remains steadfast in redeeming us from death, even crowning us with mercy and loving-kindness.

The hard part of Lent, the part that gets most of the attention, is the part where we make time to get honest about ourselves. Every one of us will find ourselves, at times, lacking the will to be compassionate especially when it involves some amount of sacrifice on our part. There are (or will be) times in our lives when our anger erupts quickly, while forgiveness comes slowly – if at all. And we can be, at times, so preoccupied with ourselves that we become blind to the fact that all around us, our family, friends, and neighbors, known and unknown to us, are suffering.

Sometimes, our preoccupation with ourselves takes the form of addiction – and we can be addicted to many things. Some addictions are familiar: food, alcohol, or drugs. Others are more insidious, like addiction to being in control, being the center of attention, self-criticism, or pessimism.

The word “Lent” actually means spring. Lent is a time when new life is being formed, and the one forming that new life is the same one who forms all life: God.

The temptation we face is thinking that we need to choose what to do or stop doing for Lent. This would be that addiction to control I mentioned. So, rather than deciding what we need to give up or add in, maybe we can approach Lent humbly and let Lent happen in us.

Pierre Teillhard deChardin, a French philosopher and Jesuit priest who died in 1955, once said: “Let us leave the surface and without leaving the world, plunge into God.” This approach fits our gospel reading which cautions us against practicing our piety for others to see. Without leaving the world, we can practice a holy Lent by immersing ourselves fully into God.

That doesn’t mean we do nothing. In fact, the hard work of Lent is emptying ourselves of all that already fills us, including the need to be full and satisfied. But emptiness scares us – the nothingness of it feels kind of like death, so we tend to avoid it.

That’s why Lent is different. Knowing that by our baptism we have entered into Jesus’ death and resurrection, we have no fear of death, not even the little ones - like the death of a habit, or the death of an idea we hold about God, ourselves, our neighbors, or even (gasp) our church.

Teillhard says that death is about communion with God. He says, “…when the painful comes in which I suddenly awaken to the fact I am losing hold of myself and am absolutely passive within the hands of the great, unknown forces that have formed me; in all those dark moments, O God, grant that I may understand that it is you …who are painfully parting the fibers of my being in order to penetrate to the very marrow of my substance and bear me away within yourself… Teach me to treat my death as an act of communion… For you bring new life out of every form of death.”

The traditional Lenten practices of prayer, fasting, and almsgiving are tested and reliable ways to enter humbly into this season. Prayer brings us into the presence of God where, if we’re quiet, we will hear God speak to us, guiding us to new ideas, new habits, new life. Fasting reminds us of our mortality and human limitations. When we remember how real and compelling hunger is, we are moved to do something to relieve it –even if it means making a bit of a sacrifice. Alsmgiving is one way we can do something to relieve suffering – offering a special financial gift toward the ministries of our church.

One final word about this: if you are diabetic, on medication, or for some other reason you can’t fast from food – don’t. There are so many other things we can fast from like self-focus, resentment, or estrangement.

Our Lenten practices aren’t about success or failure. We don’t score points for praying, fasting, or giving alms, and we don’t get demerits for not doing those things.

Remember, we don’t do Lent, we choose it. We choose to plunge into God who is waiting to form new life in us. God bless us all as we practice a holy Lent. Amen.

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