Wednesday, March 9, 2011

Ash Wednesday: Give it up!

Ash Wednesday is a day of repentance that marks the beginning of Lent. On Ash Wednesday, we remember that we come from dust and to dust we shall return. Ashes were used in ancient times, according to the Bible, to express mourning. Dusting oneself with ashes was the penitent's way of expressing sorrow for sins and faults. An example of one expressing one's penitence is found in the book of Jeremiah, where the prophet calls for repentance,: "O daughter of my people, gird on sackcloth, roll in the ashes" (Jer 6:26).The prophet Daniel pleaded for God this way: "I turned to the Lord God, pleading in earnest prayer, with fasting, sackcloth and ashes" (Daniel 9:3). Ash Wednesday marks the start of 40 days following our Lord's example in the wilderness desert of Judaea, in preparation for his public ministry, after which he was tempted by the devil. 40 days was also the time during which Moses repented and fasted before God in response to the Israelites making and worshipping of the golden calf in the desert of Sinai.

Lent in the Christian tradition, is the period of the liturgical year leading up to Easter. Lent is a time of sacrifice for Jesus. The traditional purpose of Lent is the preparation of the believer — through prayer, repentance, giving and self-denial — for the annual commemoration during Holy Week of the Death and Resurrection of Jesus, which recalls the events linked to the Passion of Christ and culminates in Easter, the celebration of the Resurrection of Jesus Christ.

It occurred to me in preparing this sermon, that maybe Lent is not as much about preparation for Easter and the Resurrection, as it is about preparing for Good Friday, and the crucifixion of our Lord, Jesus Christ. After all, why should we prepare for the great celebration of Christianity by penitence and fasting?

Just as we prepare for the birth of Jesus during Advent, and we also contemplate His second coming, the observance of Lent can be a time of drawing closer to God and deeper into his Word. As we prepare for the glorious Resurrection, we must also remember the terrible price that Jesus paid, in bearing the sins of all mankind on that cross. Therefore, Lent also is a season of grief that ends with the great celebration of Easter. It is known in Eastern Orthodox Church as the season of "Bright Sadness." It is a season of sorrowful reflection on ourselves and our condition.

Lent also can be used as a time to draw closer to God in preparation of the annual celebration of Easter. You can use the time to pray for your personal ministry, your family, or whatever you feel led to pray for. Or you can spend the time in listening prayer, waiting on the Lord’s “still small voice” to speak direction for your life,
A customary way to observe Lent has been to "deny yourself" in some way regarding food and drink, to give up something a person “enjoyed” receiving or doing for the duration of Lent (a "partial fast" of eating less than usual, or temporarily "giving up" desserts, meat, a meal, or whatever you may choose) and to replace this with extra time devoted to prayer and Bible reading/study, or the reading of Christian literature. This is a custom that developed after the Reformation. Although it is not required or part of any rule, many Christians today will also choose to give up something during the Lenten period. For example, as most of us know that Pastor Jeff usually gives up caffeinated beverages during Lent. Others may choose to give up watching television, or spending time on Facebook and/or Twitter. This can be compared to the ancient tradition of donning “sackcloth”, a coarse, itchy material, which was a way to deny one’s self comfort during times of penitence.

Another practice, more common in recent times when the pace or duties of our society may rightfully prevent us from observing a partial fast, is to “take on” a new discipline, or an activity. Personally, I have adopted the old monastic tradition of “Praying the Hours”, four times each day, offering prayers and Psalms to the Lord. Other activities you might consider would be reading a chapter of the Bible every day as a family, finishing up with the biblical accounts of the crucifixion on Good Friday; praying for a specific person, ministry or the church at the same time each day; or participating in a service project, such as “Feed my Starving Children” or your local food shelf each week during Lent. And of course, these are all things you continue after the season is over, too!

Something else to think about is that Lent is traditionally the time when those who are thinking of becoming Christians learn about the faith and prepare to be baptized, if they we never baptized as infants. Even if you are already baptized, Lent can be a good time to refresh your understanding of being a Christian, and Pastor Jeff will be very glad to help those who have never done so, in the path to adult baptism and confirmation during Easter weekend.

My point here is this: Lent is not just another time on the church calendar. Ash Wednesday is not just another day that you have to go to church. Even if the world around us fails to take notice, 2000 years ago, something happened that changed the world. Lent is the time for us as Lutherans and as Christians, to go deeper in prayer, in penitence, in contemplation and in the Word. To find our place in the death and the resurrection of Jesus Christ. To know that the price that was paid on Calvary on Good Friday has won the victory for us on Easter morning. Lent is a time to prepare. Amen.