Matthew 6:1-6, 16-21
Today marks the beginning of the season of Lent. In the early western church, individuals wanting to be baptized began a period of public penance on this first day of Lent. They were sprinkled with ashes, dressed in a pauper’s sackcloth, and obliged to remain apart from the Christian community until Maundy Thursday, the Thursday before Easter, when they were reconciled to the church. By the tenth century, this initiation process had fallen into disuse for the newcomers, but a derivation of the practice was claimed for the entire church – a practice we will follow today – by placing ashes on the foreheads of the entire congregation, making the sign of the cross. These ashes are an outward sign, which may take on a particular inward meaning for us as we begin this season of preparation for the celebration of Easter on April 8th.
Ashes give us a two-fold reminder. Ashes are a reminder of our mortality. We live on this earth for a little while, and then we perish. As we say in the funeral rite: “earth to earth, dust to dust, ashes to ashes.” The day our life will end is known only to God, and it may be today. Live today – live every day – with an awareness of the preciousness of life, the stewardship of life’s resources, the awareness and expression of gratitude for all the gifts of life, which will end, and maybe even today. Don’t miss a moment of life. Life is a gift, and it is a terminal gift.
Secondly, ashes remind us of poverty. People who live in poverty – economic poverty – cannot bathe, at least with any regularity. Poor people wear their dirt. By taking on this outward sign of ashes, we acknowledge a kind of identification with the poor, and on two levels. All of us are poor, at least in some way. We may know – or may have known – economic poverty at some point in our lifetimes, where we wondered if there would be a next meal or shelter that night. We may have known a poverty of love at some point in our life, even in childhood. There may have been food and shelter, but the dignity of our birthright was denied us because of neglect or abuse, which makes for a tragically poor existence. We may have missed some “advantages” in life, certain “advantages” that have come the way of other people we see or know. Had these advantages come our way, this may have made all the difference… but they didn’t, and we seem the poorer because of it. We may have poor health or a poor sense of hope for the future. In some way most all of us probably know the word “poverty” in the depths of our soul, maybe quite a private word, a place where we feel very vulnerable and in need, and where we come up short. I’ll call this an internal identification with the poor.
By taking this sign of ashes on our forehead, we also choose to take on an external identification with the poor of this world. We belong to them, and they to us. With these ashes on our forehead for others here to see, we also take on a public pledge of the remediation of others’ poverty. What shape that pledge will take and with whom, only we know. But Christians are known to be the followers of Jesus Christ, who laid down his life for others, for God so loved the world. For some of us, our participation in the Millennium Development goals for our poor world may be an important way for us to live out what we have vowed in our baptism. We pledge in our baptisms:
- to proclaim by word and example the Good News of God in Christ;
- to seek and serve Christ in all persons, loving our neighbor as ourselves;
- to strive for justice and peace among all people, and respect the dignity of every human being.
The gathering prayer at the beginning of our liturgy today – the Collect – uses some rather extreme language: “Create and make in us new and contrite hearts….” Contrite hearts. The English word, “contrite,” comes from the Latin, contrītus, which means “thoroughly crushed.” The sense of the word is not about a broken heart, but rather, a heart broken open. To be contrite addresses the continual warnings of the Old Testament prophets who decry that people have become “hard hearted,” that is, insolent and indifferent to the needs of the poor. Our opening prayer is a double metaphor. It’s a bidding to God, asking for God’s aid in our own heart’s being broken open to the needs of the world that surrounds us, a world that God so loves. It is also a prayer for our being given a like-new heart. This not a heart bypass procedure. Rather, this is a thoroughfare right through our heart – spiritual angioplasty – with every vessel and valve completely unclogged, pumping afresh with the love of God. Some of us may know a devotion to the Sacred Heart of Jesus. A prayer about your heart’s being encompassed by Jesus’ sacred heart may be inviting prayer this season. This lenten season you might find it helpful to ponder this metaphor of the heart: “Create and make in us new and contrite hearts.” Write your own sacred heart prayer!
One last thought. The name of this church season does not have a religious etymology. Lent, this season of Lent, literally means “long days.” The word comes from a prehistoric West Germanic root signifying spring, an allusion to the lengthening of days at this time of year in the northern hemisphere. You might find it meaningful to make this word “Lent” have special meaning for you this season, in an ecological sense. You might find it helpful to pray about light in its many manifestations and metaphors:
- Light from the sun, and how it is not being filtered in our atmosphere causing the global warming. There’s too much light. Are you moved to do something about that at the local or national or international levels, aligning yourself with some cause, some platform, some movement? The days are lengthening, and that’s not all good news.
- Artificial light and the cost to produce electrical power. Maybe it’s meaningful to fast from some of your patterns of energy consumption this Lent. This may make a lasting change on your life and on the world that surrounds us.
- And then, what about those for whom the light is not increasing, literally or metaphorically? People caught in war; people who are homeless; people who live in abject poverty and do not have access to electrical power, or clean water, or health care, or education, or a living wage. What would give cause for light to dawn on their lives? What would the good news look like and feel like for them? Is there some way that this Lent – this period of the lengthening of light – may take on special meaning for you in your prayer and practice during these coming 40 days?
Perhaps the most important discipline to take on during Lent is intentionality. Don’t sort-of do something. Don’t sort-of be something or sort-of fast from something. Be intentional. Be really present the grace of this season in some way to enlighten the eyes of your heart to a world that God so loves.
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