Wednesday, March 5, 2014

Ashwednesday ... the beginning of Lent

Dear Fathers, Brothers,Sisters in Christ, 

Matthew 6:16-21 
Jesus said, "When you fast, you are not to look glum as the 
hypocrites do. They change the appearance of their faces so 
that others may see they are fasting. I assure you they have 
already been repaid. When you fast, see to it that you groom 
your hair and wash your face. In that way no one can see you 
are fasting but your Father who is hidden and your Father who 
sees what is hidden will repay you."  

As we listen to the words of our Lord in today's Gospel I would 
say that there is a bit of a paradox here. "Comb your hair and 
wash your face." Just a few minutes ago I put ashes on the 
foreheads of my parishioners and the question arises: why is it 
that we would begin this Lenten season in this way? And what 
grim words are spoken to us! "Remember, 0 man, that dust 
thou art, and unto dust shalt thou return." The words, of 
course, are taken from the third chapter of the Book of Genesis. 
As our first parents were escorted out of the Garden of 
Paradise, they heard these words: "By the sweat of your face 
shall you get bread to eat until you return to the ground from 
which you were taken; for you are dust and to dust you shall 
return" (Genesis 3:19).  

"Remember, 0 man, that thou art dust. . ." A rather grim and 
gruesome thought. If we consider what dust is, blowing about, it 
really means nothing. It's a symbol of nothingness. Dust. You 
are dust. Consider all of the billions of people that have lived on 
this planet. And God says, "You are dust." That is grim, very 
grim. You are dust. You are nothing. If we were to hear those 
words and that's all there was to this Lenten celebration today, 
it would cause us to despair. Are we were to walk out of this 
church and think God has spoken to us and has told us that we
are nothing? Is that all? Is that what this symbol of ashes on our 
foreheads means?  

Or is there another symbol as well, a symbol that complements 
those ashes? When I imposed those ashes on your foreheads, 
how did I do it? In the sign of a cross. And that gives meaning to 
the dust. That gives meaning to you and to me. We are dust, 
but we are dust that has been redeemed.  
Jesus our Lord. the Son of God, became dust. He became this 
earth. He took up this human nature of ours. And that dust was 
nailed to a cross. He died on that cross in order that you and I 
might remember that we are dust; but that we are redeemed 
dust. We are precious in the sight of the Lord. We are not 
merely nothing. We are God's own, for He has made us so. In 
the eighth chapter of the Letter to the Romans, Saint Paul writes 
this: "If the Spirit of Him who raised Jesus from the dead dwells 
in you, then He who raised Christ from the dead will bring your 
mortal bodies to life also through His Spirit dwelling in you" 
(Romans 8:11).. The Spirit of God dwelling in us-in this dust - 
will raise us to life.  

It is to this end that you and I come together at the beginning of 
this Lenten season, as we begin this journey from ashes to 
Easter: that we truly might understand who we are and what 
we are before God. Indeed, we are dust. Truly we are nothing.
But we are redeemed! We are a people for whom God has 
poured out His life. Getting hold of that rather elusive notion is 
what our Lenten work is all about. To help us do it, the Church 
traditionally lays before us three specific activities to involve us 
during the Lenten season: prayer, fasting and almsgiving.  
Prayer is the vocal prayer that we offer. But we interpret the 
idea of prayer even more widely. Prayer is also an attitude, a 
mind-set. "Let this mind be in you that is also in Christ Jesus." 
We are to have our thoughts and our minds turned toward God. 
That's why the prophet Joel said, "Rend your hearts and not 
your garments." For a Semite, the heart was the seat of all 
understanding and thought. "Change your thinking," Joel is 
saying. That is the attitude of prayer: realizing that we are 
always in the presence of God, every waking moment of our 
lives and even when we are sound asleep, God sustains us in 
the palm of His hand. That is the attitude of prayer that we must 
develop during the Lenten season.  

Fasting. Of course, we fast during Lent. The one full meal per 
day; abstaining from meat on the proper days. But even more 
so, fasting means that we would abstain from that which 
detracts from what should be our single-minded purpose of 
drawing closer to our God. Whatever obstructs our relationship 
with God, we abstain from it. It is ancient ascetic practice to 
fast: to say no to things that are legitimate in order that we 
might more easily say no to the things that are not legitimate; 
namely, temptation to sin.  

Thirdly, almsgiving. It means more than dropping the coin or the 
bill in the basket. It means more than writing the check to
charity. All are well and good. But almsgiving is more than that. 
Almsgiving is also an attitude of mind, where we are more 
conscious of the fact that we are neighbors to one another, that 
we are brothers and sisters in the Lord, and that we respond to 
one another's needs. Whenever and however we do that, we 
call it almsgiving.  

The season before us is a beautiful one, a joyful one. It begins 
with the paradox of Ash Wednesday, but it blossoms in forty 
days in the celebration of Easter: new risen life in Christ, a life 
already begun in us. As I marked my Parishioner with the sign
of the cross today, remember that each and every one of us has
 already been marked in the same way at the beginning of our spiritual 
life, in the waters of Baptism. There too with the sign of the 
cross, words were spoken when we first received the very life of 
God Himself. "I baptize thee in the name of the Father and of 
the Son and of the Holy Ghost."   

This we want to understand more deeply during the Lenten 
season. Our risen life doesn't wait until the end of the world. Our 
risen life doesn't wait for Easter. Our risen life has already begun
Let this season be a time in which we become more and more 
conscious of that wonderful fact. We are dust, but we are 
redeemed dust; made so by Christ our risen Lord!  

A Holy Lent, 

Father Ed Bakker 
Anglican Catholic Church / Original Province 
Mission of Saint Aidan of Lindisfarne