Ash Wednesday Reflection 2017

Standard

Hey everybody.  Sorry this is a day late but I was unable to post this yesterday because the day got shorter than expected when I spent two hours running and then 1 hour trying and failing to make ashes for our Ash Wednesday service (more on that in the next few days).

But the following is a very cleaned up version of what I tried to share during the homily portion of our Ash Wednesday service last night.  I hope you enjoy it even if it is a day late!


 

The first time I observed Lent, it had nothing to do with Easter.  It was September of my Junior year of high school.  My youth pastor had awakened in me a desire to pursue a holy life and I wanted to work on becoming a better person.  So on August 31st I hatched a plan that for the 30 days of September I would give up television, movies, video games and secular music (which meant the Oldies station).  I would read at least three chapters of Scripture a day, compliment five people and do one act of service.  And I would keep a journal of it all for accountability’s sake.

So for the entire month of September, that is what I did.  I kept a yellow notebook journal with lists of every good deed, every compliment, every Scripture passage along with some written thoughts.  It was in my hands at all times.  People would ask about it but I would not tell them what it was because it was my secret.  Also, I knew even then the whole thing was pretty nerdy.  But the project itself went well.  I didn’t miss one compliment, performed 30 small acts of service and didn’t relapse to the television or the oldies station.

It was only a few months later, in late January, that I found out about Lent, the forty day period for fasting, discipline and prayer.  Since the yellow notebook project had worked so well I decided to do it again for the forty (actually forty six) days of Lent.  This time I used a red notebook and once again I didn’t miss a day, even the Sundays which are supposed to be “feast days.”

I repeated it again the next September and the next Lent after that.  I planned on doing it forever until the crazy, hectic schedule of college life put an end to it.  I have still celebrated Lent every year, just in less intricate ways.

As I have been thinking about that first September with that yellow journal, I have also been reading, “The Patient Ferment of the Early Church” by Alan Kreider which everyone really must read.  Kreider devotes a large section to the early church’s catechesis processes whereby everyday Roman pagans became tried and true and baptized Christians.  Kreider reminded me of what I have always known, that Lent was not originally conceived for the mature Christians.  Lent was more a part of the evangelism process than it was the discipleship process, though it certainly said a lot about discipleship.  Today Lent is something the mature, Super Christians do but originally it was designed for brand new, not yet baptized Christians who wanted to know more and be more like Jesus.  The forty days were intended to help these new, curious Christians figure out what Christianity was all about before they committed their lives to it by baptism.  In short, this forty day period of discipline, fasting and prayer was the means by which they were apprenticed into Christianity.

Over time each new Christian was expected to have a mature mentor and eventually those mentors began fasting during Lent as a way of journeying alongside and bearing with the new Christians.  Over time even those who were not mentoring new Christians began fasting during Lent as well so that they too could be with the new believers.

I don’t want you to miss the very profound point that all illustrates.  Even though Lent was not intended for them, the mature Christians commemorated it every year, not as a sign of their Christian maturity, but as a sign that they were willing to be weak to help the weak.  Once a year they wanted to pretend to be brand new Christians again.  They wanted to arrive at Resurrection Morning as if they were experiencing God’s grace for the very first time.  They were willing to “start over” as it were on their faith journey and become as children again, taking forty days to remember their sins and experience their weaknesses so that on Easter morning they could share more fully in the baptism of the new believers.

This is relevant for us because I have noticed that a funny thing happens as we mature in the faith.  As we get further and further away from our own baptism we begin to forget about grace.  The further we get from our “come to Jesus” moments, the more we forget the true nature of grace and the true meaning of our baptism.  Put another way, as we mature we become self righteous and proud, forgetting that we too were once wretched. Therefore, the ashes tonight are not signs of how mature our Christianity is, but signs that we want to remember our beginning, return to our roots and be humbled by our weaknesses again so that grace can grab hold of us anew on Easter morning.

For me, this means that when I receive the ashes tonight I am once again a junior in high school with all the awkwardness that comes with.  I am sitting again in my room on a hot August night, facing my own weaknesses, ashamed of own my sin and humbled by my own inadequacies.  Once more I am 17 years old and feeling the weight of holiness’ call and not quite sure what to do about it.  So I fast a few unhelpful practices, vow to commit a few helpful ones and take up a yellow journal, all so that I can work out my own salvation because, after all, it is God who is at work in me to will and to act according to God’s wonderful purposes.  And, as I did so many years ago, I again trust only God to deliver me to a grace filled Easter morning.

5 Weeks Later: An Update on Lenten Fasting.

Standard

As I sit here at my computer I am looking out at the tree lined street on which I live.  I can count about 12 trees of various types and heights.  All but the Pine were completely lifeless ten days ago.  Now every single one is bursting with life and I can see gorgeous shades of green, white, pink, red and even some gold.

Believe it or not, the sudden outburst of Spring is the fiercest temptation yet to betray my Lenten fast.

After all, Lent is such a winter season.  It begins with that lifeless and sobering proclamation, “From dust you came, to dust you shall return.”  The Lectionary passages build on that theme, full of somber darkness, from week 1’s gospel passage about temptation and John the Baptist’s beheading to week 4’s poisonous serpents in Numbers 21.

But every Lent, right around week 5 that somber sobriety gets old and seems quite out of date, especially as winter is fading quickly.  And as winter gets old, so to does my Lenten Fast.

Every single Lent I usually have forgotten I was fasting about now.  That is one of the ironies of this church season.  Every January I begin thinking about what to give up. And I always try to pick the most difficult thing, that thing that is not only most creative, but most central to my life.  After all, the idea of fasting is to give up something you will dearly miss.  That way, when you long for it you can redirect the longing towards God.  Therefore, giving up something arbitrary is pointless.

And yet despite trying my hardest whatever I gave up in February seems quite nonexistent in March.  Those things which seemed so integral to my life a month ago are now barely remembered.

Yet therein lies the temptation, because it is a lot easier to take back up something arbitrary than something more weighty.

With warmer weather and the fast getting old, it is easier to betray yourself accidentally, to just flick on the TV or eat that one piece of chocolate or drink that one sip of coffee or whatever it is, simply because we forgot we were fasting it.  After all fasting is for winter and Spring is blooming outside my window.

Next week, Holy Week, I will double down on my fast, choosing to give up more substantial things like food, running and coffee.  That will serve to fight off any other temptation I might be experiencing right now.  However, that is next week.  This week I am stuck in bed, sick with some concotion of a head cold, allergies and a stomach bug and those video games are looking mighty enticing, mostly because I am bored.

So instead, I chose to write about all this in the hopes that maybe some of you can relate at all to any of this.  If you can, I want to assure you, as a way of reassuring myself, that you are not alone.  That seemingly arbitrary thing you gave up which is now knocking at your door can be resisted until Easter puts to death once more the lifeless winter of our souls.

That afternoon, after the sunrise services and baptisms and church breakfasts and family lunches, when you can purposefully kill off your fast, as you turn the TV on or brew a pot of coffee or eat a morsel of chocolate, I hope you feel the Resurrection power anew.

Until then, may God’s grace lead us to the cross.