ASH WEDNESDAY - A - 17 MATTHEW 6.1-6,16-21
Jesus and the disciples have descended the Holy Mount of Transfiguration and are on their way to Jerusalem and the cross.
For us Lent begins today and these 40 days will be, as it were for us, a journey with Jesus to Jerusalem.
In the history of Christian worship, the observance of Lent grew from one day of fasting between Good Friday and Easter to a period of 40 days. These 40 days have always been a time of reflection and renewal for the church.
Adult converts are instructed in the mysteries of the Christian faith waiting for the Vigil of the Resurrection to be baptized, so that entering into and rising out of the baptismal waters would be seen alongside the descent into the tomb and the rising out of death of Jesus himself.
In the baptismal office the newly baptized here the words that they are sealed by the Holy Spirit and marked as Christ’s own forever as the sign of the cross is traced on their foreheads. But the words that accompany the ashen cross traced on our foreheads this day are different: “Remember that thou art dust and to dust thou shalt return.” The ashes remind us of our need of repentance and of our mortality.
These 40 days is the church’s way of giving us yet another chance to get it right; to live a holy life. Thus the church invites us to the observance of a holy Lent. How do we do that? Can we do that on our own?
Jesus is teaching his disciples about piety in today’s gospel passage. He singles out three specific acts to make his point that our practice of piety is not to draw attention to ourselves, but to help others and give God the glory. Our almsgiving helps others as does our prayers of intercession. Fasting, however is meant for our benefit.
Fasting cleanses not only our bodies but our minds. It enables us to see clearly that our dependence is on God. In addition to these three acts of personal piety, the church invites us to practice a regimen of spiritual discipline that begins with self-examination and repentance; followed by prayer, self-denial; and the reading and meditating on God’s holy Word.
Prayer is how we approach God and communicate with him. Fasting and self-denial manifest our total dependence on God. Reading and meditating on God’s holy Word is the way we come to know God and what God expects from us.
Perhaps the most difficult one for most of us is the act of self-examination. This is, in a way, holding ourselves up to the light of the Gospel; to become transparent, as it were, before God so that we recognize and acknowledge the flaws and short comings that exist in our relationship to God; flaws and short comings that spill over into our relationships with our neighbors that keep us from living a holy life.
To acknowledge them before God, is the first step in turning our life back to God. Because he loves us he forgives us, and in turn gives us the grace to over come them. Repentance clears the way for God “to create and make in us a new and contrite heart,” that enables us to recapture the vision of Easter, and to recommit ourselves to living the new life to which we have been called in Christ Jesus our Lord.
This is our “bread for the journey.” To engage in the above as we make this journey with Jesus, keeps us on the right path; one focused on Him. We know where the journey ends and how it ends. In this, we have the advantage over the disciples who walked with Jesus from Galilee to the Holy City.
We are on this side of the cross. We are Easter people. Our 40 day preparation is not for Good Friday, but for the celebration of Easter; a new beginning. In order for us to be truly surprised and rejoice at His resurrection, as we should be, we need to make this journey using all of the spiritual “tools” the church invites us to use - with God’s help.
All are useful in and out of “season.” For they enable us to live a holy life beyond these 40 days and at the same time prepare us for the true joy of Easter in which we remember “that it is only by God’s gracious gift that we are given everlasting life; through Jesus Christ our Savior.” AMEN+