Ash Wednesday

St Michael’s, O’Fallon

The beginning of Lent, for most of us, triggers a series of associative responses from the past. This chain of associations is rarely the same for any two of us, since we each come with our own unique perspective. I was brought up in a Baptist household, so Lent was something other people did.  But I did live in the suburbs of Chicago, so I went to school with a lot of kids whose last names ended in s-k-i  or w-i-c-z, and whose Roman Catholicism was constantly, if quietly, evident. I remember them showing up at school on Ash Wednesday with curious black smudges on their foreheads and wondering just what that was about. I also distinctly recall looking at the food supplement of the Chicago Daily News and noticing a lead article on “creative ideas for Lenten meals,” and feeling rather out of the cultural mainstream.

If you were raised Roman Catholic, you probably remember a noticeable change in the menu in the school cafeteria and at home, and a fair amount of pressure from various authority figures to identify just what it was you were giving up or taking on as your Lenten discipline.  Now if you’re one of the few, the proud, the cradle Episcopalians, then there’s no telling for sure what Lent might mean to you. Last week I posted on Facebook my response to a reporter who asked how Episcopalians keep Ash Wednesday, and there were lots of comments from other Episcopalians, clergy even, who said they’d never heard of what I described. But in any case, there’s a good chance it meant being in church on Ash Wednesday, though there’s an equally good chance that the only ashes to be found were on the wicks of the altar candles after they were snuffed. If nothing else, it meant that church services were a little more somber, with hymns sung more slowly and lugubriously than usual. Whether or not Lent affected your home life depended on the level of churchmanship that your parents and your parish adhered to.

But anyway, here we are, gathered together in St Michael’s Church, in O’Fallon, Illinois, on February 14, 2018—gathered together with our various backgrounds, associations, experiences, and pre-conceptions. Except in years when Easter falls well into April, I usually don’t feel quite ready for Lent—it feels like Christmas was just last week. At times, though, I’ve been more than ready, already in Lenten mood by the time Ash Wednesday rolls around. But time, as we learn sooner or later, waits for none of us, and the rhythm of the year unfolds in glorious ignorance of the rhythms of our personal lives.

For some of you here this evening, Lent could hardly have come at a more appropriate time, for you are truly experiencing desolation in your life. I don’t know who you are, but you do. The tone of your life is dark and austere, and the austerity and restraint of our liturgy this evening is an altogether appropriate expression of the condition you find yourself in.

Others of you come to this service with an acute sense of your own sinfulness. You know exactly what it is that you should justly be feeling remorseful for, precisely what it is that is separating your soul from God this evening. I don’t know who you are, but you do. And when, in a few minutes, we pray the litany of penitence together, and, then, after receiving the ashes, pray the fifty-first psalm, what flows out of your lips will truly fit with the condition of your heart:  “Have mercy on me, O God, according to your loving-kindness; in your great compassion blot out my offenses.”

Others who worship with us this evening, however, find that, while the calendar tells them it’s Lent, their hearts tell them it’s Christmas or Easter—or at least Valentine’s Day! Maybe life has never been better for you than it is right now. Maybe you’ve just achieved a long-cherished goal and are still savoring the sweetness of accomplishment. Maybe you’re overwhelmed with feelings of gratitude and joy over the many blessings that God has showered upon you.  I don’t know who you are, but you do. You want to cry out “Alleluia!” just when that word is supposed to be banished from our vocabulary for the next several weeks. For you, what we do this evening will be slightly jarring, slightly unsettling. It’s not that you’ll be able to disagree with anything that’s said, but it just won’t be from the heart.

And then, there are those who are here, who may not have a very clear idea at all as to why they’re here. Perhaps you’re a young person and were not given a choice in the matter. Perhaps you were assigned something in particular to do and showed up in fulfillment of your duty. Again, I don’t know who you are, but you do. For you, tonight’s liturgy may be confusing and/or boring, something you’ll have no trouble forgetting the moment you walk out the door. Then again, maybe you’ll have an “Aha!” experience, and see something you’ve never noticed before. Maybe you’ll always look back on this Ash Wednesday as the starting point of a lively and authentic relationship with God. Stranger things have happened.

But what I want to tell you is that, in the larger scheme of things, the way any of us feels about tonight’s goings-on is of passing small importance.  What is important, is that we’re all here, doing what we’re doing. Now I wonder whether it strikes you as a little bit odd to hear me say that?  I know it strikes me as odd! It challenges two of the fundamental presumptions that you and I are conditioned by.

The first of these presumptions is that what we do, we do primarily as individuals. Even when we do something as part of a group, we assume that the group is neither more nor less than the sum of its individual parts. This view doesn’t square, however, with the way God seems to deal with mankind. When the world was destroyed by flood, the sure route to salvation was by being on board Noah’s ark. The ark escaped the flood, and thereby the individuals who were on it. Under the terms of the Old Covenant, the fundamental basis of one’s right standing before God was membership in the community of Israel, the nation with whom the covenant was made. The words of the prophet Joel that we heard read a few minutes ago spoke of the need of the entire nation to repent and return to the Lord. And under the terms of the New Covenant, the covenant we have with God through Christ, we are saved by participation in the body of Christ, which is the community of the church. It is into this body that we are born in the sacrament of baptism.

And, you know, it could not be more appropriate that we are saved as individuals by sharing in the life of a group, because we are also sinners as individuals by virtue of being part of a group. Sure, many of the sins we commit are quite personal and individual, and those are the ones that are likely to make us feel the guiltiest—but, remember, tonight isn’t about feelings! Pay close attention to the Litany of Penitence that we are shortly about to pray together.  Most of the sins that we will confess are not offenses that would be of any interest to the vice squad of the O’Fallon PD!  They’re sins that we’re guilty of as a whole society. Who’s responsible for the plight of the hungry and the homeless? No single individual, but all of us as a society. Who’s responsible for the pollution of our air and water? No single individual, but all of us as a society.  When I first moved to Baton Rouge, Louisiana about thirty years ago, I very righteously decided to boycott Exxon in protest over what was then a recent massive oil spill in Alaska. But then it occurred to me that that was the height of hypocrisy! I was biting the hand that fed me! My protest had not a shred of moral authority. I may never have spilled a drop of oil on God’s green earth, but as long as I cashed my paycheck twice a month—a paycheck that was as dependent on the Baton Rouge economy as the Baton Rouge economy was on the petroleum-refining industry, then I was just as guilty of environmental pollution as if I personally dumped toxic waste into the Mississippi River. There is such a things as social sin, and it needs to be repented of as surely as does individual sin.

So, the Ash Wednesday liturgy challenges the presumption that the only behavior that counts is individual behavior. But there is another presumption—an even more important one, I believe—that is called into question by what we do here this evening. You and I are conditioned, in a multitude of ways, to perceive the exterior as an expression of the interior. In other words, what I do and say is a reflection of what I think and feel. This is by no means a false assumption, as far as it goes. In fact, it’s probably the ideal situation, where our actions and our words are harmonized with our thoughts and feelings. But, it can also work in the opposite direction. Energy can flow from our actions to our beliefs and emotions, from the exterior to the interior. And this is one of the supreme benefits of liturgy, and of the cycle of liturgical time, with its alternation between feasting, fasting, and just ordinary living.

Tonight, the body of Christ, the community of the church, is repenting, expressing corporate remorse for things done and left undone. Any one of the particular cells of the body may or may not “need” to repent in the particular way and for the particular sins of which the body is repenting. But the body still needs the contribution of those cells. There are those weak cells, who, as individuals, need to repent, but are unaware of their need, or lack the ability to do so, and require the assistance of stronger voices confessing and stronger knees kneeling.  For those weak cells of the body, tonight is a school of repentance. They will learn by doing, with the rest of the community acting as spiritual training wheels. In time, by participating in liturgies such as this one, the exterior words and actions of the “weak” cells will transform their thoughts and feelings, so that their outward aspect and their inward aspect will be in harmony.

And the stronger cells, whose, who, as individuals, have no overwhelming need of repentance now, prepare themselves for the time when they will need to turn yet again toward Christ. By “going through the motions” this evening, even though the words spoken may seem to overstate the actual condition of their lives, they maintain their spiritual fitness the way an athlete keeps in shape by running or lifting weights during the off season.

So, join me in this solemn assembly, and let us keep this fast together, regardless of whether we’re ready for it, or in the mood for it. Receive, with me, the mark of our mortality on our foreheads, and share with me, once again, in taking, blessing, breaking, and giving the sacred gifts by which this mortality is defeated. Amen.

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