Ash Wednesday – 03.01.17
Today, the first day of Lent and the most solemn day of the church year, is marked by two phrases. The first is “Remember you are dust, and to dust you shall return.” That is a very powerful reminder of our mortality. In many churches in Manhattan that have a brief Ash Wednesday service at midday it is common for visitors to attend during their lunch break from work. One of my colleagues often has such visitors from all walks of life at their midday service. He described how last year, a woman whose clothing indicated she was an executive of some sort, approached the altar to receive ashes with what appeared to be a great deal of trepidation. He made the sign of the cross with the ashes on her forehead, and said the words, “Remember you are dust, and to dust you shall return,” whereupon the woman burst into tears.
She was so distraught that the vicar who was also distributing ashes and the deacon both came over to comfort her along with the pastor. She apologized for “creating a scene” and briefly explained that the words had struck her so hard because she was so concerned about her brother who had just been diagnosed with a very serious and possibly terminal form of cancer. They helped her to a seat and, laying hands on her, prayed for her brother, for her and for all their loved ones. The service resumed, and afterward she came up to them and thanked them for the comfort they had surrounded her with when she so desperately needed it. Upon hearing those words all the fear and despair she had been trying to keep under control had hit her full force in the realization of her brother’s possible imminent mortality. She said she believed the Holy Spirit had led her to attend service at that church that she had never been in before that day.
Lent is a very solemn time of the church year, a time when we are encouraged to remember our mortality, to take stock of our lives, to repent of our sins. Repentance is not just saying we are sorry, it means to do a “180” and turn our lives around. But Lent is not just about doom and gloom. The word Lent comes from the Latin word for spring. Lent coincides with the anticipation of the season of spring, a time of renewal and new growth. Just as we look forward to the arrival of warmer weather, the bulbs that push up through the earth and the new leaves on the trees, we also look forward to new growth in our spiritual lives.
The other powerful phrase that we hear on this day is “For where your treasure is, there your heart should be also.” What do we treasure? Usually we treasure most the people whom we love. In the aftermath of disasters like Hurricane Sandy people say over and over that the loss of all their material goods did not matter as long as their loved ones were safe. The woman who broke down in tears at my friend’s church last Ash Wednesday, realized her brother was a treasure dear to heart, a treasure that she might lose. Of course, if the truth be told, in normal times when we are not experiencing life threatening events, we also treasure material things. For some it might be things that have been passed down through our family, or treasured gifts, or perhaps our homes or collections we have amassed. Yet in this passage Jesus reminds us that we are to be wary of holding material things too close to our hearts. We are to treasure what is really important.
During Lent we are encouraged to follow spiritual disciplines that will help us to turn our lives around and recognize our true treasure. Jesus affirms the value of these disciplines, first that of giving to others. Jesus urges us to resist our natural desire to be publicly praised for our giving and to do it in private. Any gift given out of love is good, but sometimes generosity is offered in a quiet way, for the sake of those who need the help, without public recognition. Jesus reminds us that kind of giving is most pleasing to God.
The next discipline Jesus talks about is prayer. He uses as an example a person who is loudly praying on the street corner in order to make it clear that he is not talking about the corporate prayer that we engage in during worship. He was not trying to discourage his disciples from attending worship at the temple just as he is not discouraging us from sharing prayer when we worship together. He was talking about those who would offer prayer ostentatiously in public, which is really intended to draw attention to the one who is “praying” rather than engaging in meaningful conversation with God. Prayer is all about relationship. We strengthen our relationship with God when we encounter God in prayer, and we strengthen our relationships with one another when we pray together at worship.
The third discipline is that of fasting. It is probably the one we find the strangest and the most difficult to follow. Fasting as a spiritual practice was fairly common in ancient Judaism and was carried over into the early Christian church, although we should remember that many people were so poor they were always in a state of fasting. Many eastern religions still use fasting as a spiritual practice, but it has fallen out of regular use in the west. Today fasting is often done as a way of calling attention to a cause, such as world hunger, or in protest of something, as when prisoners refuse to eat. We also refrain from food in order to lose weight, but Lent is a good time to consider some form of fasting as an act of humility.
The people at my friend’s church responded to the woman in distress by offering comfort and prayer. It was a natural response that utilized the disciplines of Lent so that they became a treasure for that woman when she needed it. By engaging in any and all of these disciplines we are building up treasure in heaven. Since our hearts are easily swayed by treasure, it becomes all the more important that we seek and store the right treasure to begin with, for our hearts are sure to follow. The emotional reaction of that woman when she was reminded of her brother’s mortality sparked a spontaneous and genuine response from the worship leaders. When we hold as our greatest treasure our relationship with God, and then our relationships with other people, we also honor the greatest command, to love God and neighbor above all else. Amen.