Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Reflections on Ash Wednesday

Lent, believe it or not, is one of my favorite times of year. It isn't because I particularly enjoy the observation of Lent (or, for that matter, that I even truly observe it: "Therefore you shall fast in the days of the Pascha...and you shall sustain yourselves with bread and salt and water only...but on [Good] Friday and on [Holy Saturday] fast wholly, and taste nothing. You shall come together and watch and keep vigil all the night with prayers and intercessions, and with reading of the Prophets, and with the gospel and with psalms, with fear and trembling and with earnest supplication, until the third hour in the night after the Sabbath." Didascalia Apostolorum). What I love about Lent is the sense of unity it gives me. The practical outworking of my Lenten devotions, meager though they are, are a constant reminder to me that I am actively engaged in a tremendous body of Christians acting together in devotion to Christ. Every time I face and overcome temptation by God's grace, I mirror in my actions not only Christ who overcame temptation in his forty days in the desert but also the common experience of each of the many parts of his living body who also struggle and conquer and are made more than conquerors through God's love for us. So though I see the inherent hypocrisy in it as I try in some infinitesimal way to mimic the sufferings and trials of Christ from my rocking, reclining throne in my climate controlled palace, I trust that God's mercy will forgive the joy that I feel in this season more than any time of year.

And this year more than most years. While petty squabbling has caused there to be a break in, of all things, when we consecrate this time in preparation for the greatest of Christian feasts, once every few years all Christians, East and West, are unified as an Easter people, theologically and chronologically. This is just such a year. This year, in theory, some 1.75 billion Christians are observing Lent in one way or another. Do we even begin to grasp what a number like that means? That is enough, in rough numbers, to have one Christian sit on every person in the USA, the UK, and China. Or perhaps, more productively, that is enough Christians that, if we were so inclined, we could pray for each soul in those three powerhouses by name in a matter of only a moment. To play out the metaphor more fully, if we were to pray for a different person by name before every meal, the Christians observing Lent could pray for the entire population of the world in the course of one day. I realize of course how naive it would be to take the statistics for Christian adherence and to extrapolate them like that, but the thought is nevertheless provoking. Mystifying even. Most importantly, humbling.

It should humble because, in spite of our over-inflated senses of self-importance, we are shown our own insignificance in the grand scheme of things. The common analogy presented from the pulpit about the body of Christ that asks whether this person is a hand or a foot is laid bare by Lent which points out that you are neither a hand nor a foot but one of many largely indistinguishable blood vessels which serve to reliably though mechanically keep the body moving.

It should humble us more, perhaps, not by causing us to realize our own insignificance but, ironically, our own untapped potential. While one the one hand putting the part in its place, Lent should in the most shocking way shame us for the way we have allowed the church to fragment into impotence. We come together to form a dramatic unity in consecration to God, which is of prime importance no doubt, but when it comes to being His ambassadors to the world, we spend most of our time lost idly in individualism. The question "what can I do" must be answered with a "nothing," but at the same time Lent answers "what can we do" with a resounding "more than you have been doing."

Or as Samuel Annesley (John Wesley's grandfather) said, "It is serious Christianity that I press, as the only way to better every condition; it is Christianity, downright Christianity that alone can do it; it is not morality without faith (that is but refined hedonism); it is not faith without morality (that is but downright hypocrisy); it must be divine faith wrought by the Holy Ghost, where God and man concur in the operation, such a faith as works by love, both to God and man, a holy faith, full of good works."

With that somewhat protractive introduction out of the way, my main purpose in posting today was going to be to share some quotes - ancient, early modern, and contemporary - about Lent. The first is from Athanasius in whose time Lent, as we presently know it, was born. The next is from John Wesley, which I have truncated freely for space and effect, and then his brother Charles. Finally the comments of a pair of modern authors are included.

Athanasius of Alexandria, Festal Letter 6

But just as Israel, advancing toward Jerusalem, was purified and instructed in the desert, so that they would forget the customs of Egypt, so it is right that during the holy Lent, which we have taken upon ourselves, we should give our attention to our cleansing and purification, so that setting forth from here and mindful of fasting we can ascend to the upper room with the Lord and dine with him and share the joy in heaven. For otherwise, without keeping Lent, it would not be allowed us either to go up to Jerusalem or to eat the Pascha.

John Wesley, Sermon on the Pharisee

A Pharisee (to express his sense in our common way) used all the means of grace. As he fasted often and much, twice in every week, so he attended all the sacrifices. He was constant in public and private prayer, and in reading and hearing the Scriptures. Do you go as far as this? Do you fast much and often? Twice in a week? Once at least? Do you fast twice in a year? I am afraid some among us cannot plead even this! Do you every day either hear the Scriptures or read them? Do you join in prayer with the great congregation, daily, if you have opportunity? Do you strive to make opportunities? Do you spend an hour in a day, or in a week, in praying to your Father who is in secret? An hour in a month? Have you spent one hour together in private prayer ever since you were born? Ah, poor Christian! Shall not the Pharisee rise up in judgment against thee and condemn thee?

Charles Wesley, Penitential Hymn

Lat They hand upon my soul
Bruise me with Thy righteous rod,
Wound and never make me whole,
Till my spirit returns to God;

Ford Keifer, We Are Easter People

Jesus' forty days of prayer suggest that Lent is a time of prayer, of listening to God in his Word, and of responding from the depths of one's own heart. The long prayer vigil on Holy Saturday night is the climax of this season of prayer. Because the Church watches with her Lord, she is sensitive to his coming, to his presence and activity in her midst. Because she has kept vigil, she can cry out, "Alleluia, this is the day the Lord has made; let us rejoice and be glad in it!"

D. T. Niles, The Power at Work Among Us: Meditations for Lent

In the world as we look around it, we see contending forces battling for the souls and bodies of men. While men in one part of the world are plagued by the problems of work, in another part of the world they are plagued by the problems of leisure. There are those who seek temporary relief in mass entertainment, alcohol, or drugs. There are others who seek permanent relief in a flight from life and sometimes even in suicide. For most it seems that there is nothing human goodwill can achieve apart from each person creating around himself an immediate circle of friendship. When the visible thus offers no ground for hope, is there an invisible reality on which hope can be based? There is. men have a sure and steadfast anchor, a hope that enters into the inner shrine behind the curtain, where Jesus has gone. There is a throne above the universe and that throne is not empty. Hope does not arise from the circumstances of life, it arrives from the throne of God.

Finally, from the Book of Common Prayer, this is my sincere hope for all Christians observing Lent that we might all see the practical implications of our shared devotion: "O Lord, who hast taught us that all our doings without charity are nothing worth, send they Holy Ghost, and pour into our hearts that most excellent gift of charity, the very bond of peace and of all virtues, without which whosoever liveth is counted dead before thee. Grant this for thine only Son Jesus Christ's sake. Amen."

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