Sermon: Ash Wednesday, Year B
A Short Introduction to Lent
n the name of the +Father, and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
As Ash Wednesday is the introduction to Lent, I thought it might be useful to have a short introduction to Lent this evening.
Where it Came From
In the earliest Christian centuries, once the Christian mission moved past Palestine and the “god-fearing” Gentiles (those familiar with and disposed toward the story of Israel’s god, like Cornelius in Acts 10) and into the wider Roman world, it became necessary to catechize potential converts – to be intentional about teaching them the story of God, his people, his world, and his Christ, from beginning to end. Catechesis was a time of ethical reformation, as members of the church discipled these soon-to-be Christians in the way of God’s New Community. Baptism was traditionally only celebrated on Easter morning at the culmination of the Easter Vigil.
Much of the theological instruction for this one to three year period was put into the period of 40 days before this momentous memorial. Forty days echoes Moses conversing with God on Sinai before receiving the Ten Commandments, the forty years of temptation in the wilderness that refined Israel, and the forty days when Jesus entered the wilderness for his communion with God and to prepare for his own testing. Forty days is a time of refining and of being with the Lord.
At the season of Lent, Christian converts receive intensive theological education, accompanied by prayers, confession and exorcisms – it is indeed an intense time of being with the Lord. The rest of the Church also walks through this time of penitence and learning and self-examination.
Walking with Jesus
It also has a place in the overall narrative of Jesus’ life: At Epiphany, we commemorated his appearance to his people, and realized that he is the light that scatters our darkness.
At his baptism, he was revealed to be the Son of God, bearing divine favour for the people.
At the reception of John’s baptism, he identified himself with the faithful remnant of Israel, and began to reconstitute the nation in terms of loyalty to himself by his calling of the Twelve; now enter the story of the last days of his ministry, when he begin to orient himself and his disciples to his vocation of suffering and death for the sake of the people.
The story has taken a dark turn, and we join the Master as he sets his face resolutely toward Jerusalem. In solidarity with him, we begin the time of sorrowing for our sins and his suffering, walking into the darkness of our broken humanity in the hope of Easter’s light.
So the matter of Lenten disciplines or practices is this: what can I do to set my own face toward Jerusalem? What in my personality and my life with the Church in the world needs to be put to death, and what does God wish to be raised up? I think we find the answers to these questions by putting ourselves in an intentional posture of listening: making a quiet space in our routines to hear from the Lord.
This is not meant for Herculean efforts of spiritual zeal – like boot camp for Jesus – but for a time of greater intentionality. We learn to be quiet and make space, preparing for the conviction of sin, and to offer our brokenness for his healing, so that when we do speak and act, we will do so as a grateful and repentant response to the Trinitarian God who leads us into truth.
Lent is not about what you give up, but about what you embrace, for to embrace a better discipline is to embrace Christ. We are to be known as Christians not by what we reject, but by what we show in our lives, not by what we walk away from but from what we engage with.
There is prayer: daily prayer in the form of an office. One of our disciplines in our household this lent will be nightly compline – the late evening office before we retire to bed. You might want to expressly close the day with a reading from scripture or a set prayer – Mother Margaret and I can help you on this.
Centering prayer enables us to quiet ourselves in a deep, purposeful way, to stop the noise and stop the thinking and just stop … and wait for the Spirit of the Lord to come and do what it will. It’s about giving him space to do the deep works he needs to do, but doesn’t really need to tell us about.
There is study – the Lent course each Monday is an important way to spiritual preparation. It is not too late to come to that.
There is the sacrament of reconciliation. A few in this parish have engaged with that sacrament, and it is available at all times of the year, but especially so in Lent. I am happy to walk with people as they make their personal confession to God and seek advice, penance and absolution. There are a number of really good pamphlets which I can recommend on the subject to begin the process of freeing anyone from the burden of their sin. In the Anglican Church, the Sacrament of Reconciliation is not compulsory, but useful. In the words of Archbishop Michael Ramsay: “All May. Some Should. None Must”.
There is Spiritual Reading, and this Lent, The Church in the Marketplace by Archbishop George Carey is most recommended. Copies are circulating. Put your name on the list and read it. Read it now.
There is also the Mass. Attending to the holy mysteries, and receiving the mystical body of Christ into oneself – does that need explanation? Salvation, after all, isn’t only or even mostly in our heads. Salvation is performed, and salvation must be eaten.
The time of Great Lent is upon us. May it be a holy one as we walk into the dark places of ourselves and discover that the Lord Himself leads us into the stillness of our solitary fears, to sit with us, to heal us, and to absorb all of our darkness into the Darkness of his Cross and the Light of Easter Dawn.
May peace and blessing be upon you as you begin the journey of Lent in God’s Church. Let us journey. Let us prepare. Let us pray.