Ash Wednesday

Watching for Ash Wednesday, February 14, 2018

Tomorrow we begin our long journey to Jerusalem where Jesus will wash feet, break bread, pray in Gethsemane, get kissed by Judas and abandoned by his followers, be abused by the thugs who snatched him in the night and tortured by Roman Soldiers in the full light of day. And he will not fight back. He will raise no army. He will lift no sword. He will call for no chariots of fire. There will be no joining of earthly and heavenly armies to slay the imperial troops of Rome. There will be hammer and nails and a tomb with its entrance barred by a stone.

And in the darkness of that final night will shine the light of a divine mercy that envelops the whole world in grace. “The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep.”

Tomorrow is Ash Wednesday, the beginning of the Christian observance of Lent, a forty day period of fasting, sharing and serving, a time of spiritual renewal that will bring us to that day when the women find the tomb empty and see a vision of angels declare that God has raised Jesus from the dead.

Tomorrow is Ash Wednesday. And our evening begins with the burning of the palm fronds from Palm Sunday last year and the ancient practice of anointing ourselves with ashes.

Ashes to ashes, dust to dust – it is partly about remembering our mortality. More profoundly it remembers that death came when humanity turned away from God. And so it is a day of repentance, of turning back to God. It begins a period of forty days of intentional turning towards God, an intentional deepening of our spiritual lives, an intentional deepening of compassion, faith, hope, and joy.

Our signs of repentance are not merely personal. We ask God’s forgiveness on behalf of the whole human race. And there is much to confess. The deceit and destruction loose in our world, the greed and over-consumption, the violence, the warring. There is much to confess. And we will stand with the victims of all our evil. With those ashes we stand with the abused and forgotten, the hungry and homeless, the refugees unwanted, the fearful and grieving. We stand with them all, daring to name our human brokenness, knowing that Jesus will share that brokenness and bear the scars in his hands and feet.

We dare to name it all, because God is mercy. Because God is redemption. Because God is new life. Because God is new creation. Because God is eager for us to turn away from our destructive paths into the path of life.

So with ashes on our foreheads we will renew the journey that leads to the empty tomb, the gathered table, and the feast to come.

The Prayer for Ash Wednesday

Almighty God, Holy and Immortal,
who knows the secrets of every heart
and brings all things to the light of your grace.
Root us ever in your promised mercy
that, freed from every sin and shame,
we may walk the paths of your truth and love.

The Texts for Ash Wednesday

First Reading: Isaiah 58:1-12 (appointed: Joel 2:1-2, 12-17)
“Is not this the fast that I choose: to loose the bonds of injustice, to undo the thongs of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free, and to break every yoke?” –
After the return from exile in Babylon, life was hard and Jerusalem and its temple continued to lie in ruins. The people complained that God did not respond to their prayers. The prophet challenges the meaning of such prayers when the people fail to embody the life of justice and mercy to which God called them.

Psalmody: Psalm 103:8-14
“He has not dealt with us according to our sins, nor rewarded us according to our wickedness.” – In our parish, we use the appointed Psalm 51 (the famous cry of repentance by David after he has been confronted by the prophet Nathan over the murder of Uriah and the taking of Bathsheba ) in the confession at the beginning of our liturgy. When we come to the time for the psalm we hear the poet speak of the tender love and faithfulness of God who has “removed our sins from us” “as far as the east is from the west.”

Second Reading: 2 Corinthians 5:20b-6:1 (appointed: 5:20b-6:10)
“We entreat you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God.”
– Paul calls his troubled congregation to live within the reconciling work of God in Christ.

Gospel Matthew 6:1-6, 16-21
“Beware of practicing your piety before others in order to be seen by them; for then you have no reward from your Father in heaven.” – Jesus declares at the beginning of the Sermon on the Mount that, in order to enter into God’s dawning reign, our righteousness must exceed that of the scribes and Pharisees. Now, having spoken about the meaning of the commandments (in contrast to the way they are taught by the scribes) Jesus turns to the acts of piety for which the Pharisees were known. Our prayer, fasting and charity must be done not for public acclaim but to please God.

Changing direction

Watching for Ash Wednesday, February 10, 2016

File:Spoilt for Choice^ - geograph.org.uk - 640101.jpgAsh Wednesday takes us into territory that we, as Americans, don’t travel much. It is a season of repentance. We have a hard time acknowledging our sins, much less feeling bad about it. Nor do we like to think about our mortality and the frailty of life. But there is no wisdom without these.

Our instinctive national answer to the tragedy in the Middle East is to blame and send more troops, not to ask how we ended up here and whether there is another path we should take. We do not like to consider whether there are stains on our hands.

There is something to be said for the forward view of American culture. We are a people who do not feel bound by the past. Its blessing is our inventiveness. Its curse is that we do not learn well from the past.

We do not have time for navel-gazing; there are things to do. We do not believe in abstinence; the economy depends upon impulse purchases. Even Santa, after all, we now know, ditches his sleigh for the much more pleasurable experiences of delivering present in his bright red Mercedes.

Ash Wednesday tells us to be still. To remember we are mortal. To consider the realm of the spirit. To let go of some generally simple pleasures (that we imagine we cannot live without) and turn our attention to those who are in need of life’s most basic necessities like food and shelter. Or friendship. Or kindness. Or a listening ear.

So Wednesday we will hear the traditional texts from Joel calling us to return to the LORD, and the David’s psalm crying out to God after being confronted with the abuse of his royal power to take Bathsheba and rob Uriah of his life. We will hear Paul urge us to be reconciled with God. And we will hear Jesus talk about the difference between acts of public piety and a life that embodies the mercy of God.

Forty days is much to long to feel sad about our sins. But both the Greek and Hebrew words translated as repentance mean changing our direction, not feeling guilty.

We need occasionally to stop, and look, and turn away from the well-worn path into that other path that is true life.

We call it Lent.

It takes us to Easter.

The Prayer for Ash Wednesday

Almighty God, Holy and Immortal,
who knows the secrets of every heart
and brings all things to the light of your grace.
Root us ever in your promised mercy
that, freed from every sin and shame,
we may walk the paths of your truth and love.

The Texts for Ash Wednesday

First Reading: Joel 2:1-2, 12-17
“Blow the trumpet in Zion; sanctify a fast; call a solemn assembly; gather the people.” – Facing a terrible plague of locusts, the prophet calls for the people to turn to God, marking themselves with dust and ashes and rent hearts that God may see their desperate plight and come to their aid.

Psalmody: Psalm 103:8-14
“He has not dealt with us according to our sins, nor rewarded us according to our wickedness.” – In our parish, we use the appointed Psalm 51 (the famous cry of repentance by David after he has been confronted by the prophet Nathan over the murder of Uriah and the taking of Bathsheba ) in the confession at the beginning of our liturgy. When we come to the time for the psalm we hear the poet speak of the tender love and faithfulness of God who has “removed our sins from us” “as far as the east is from the west.”

Second Reading: 2 Corinthians 5:20b-6:1 (Appointed: 5:20b-6:10)
“We entreat you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God.”
– Paul calls his troubled congregation to live within the reconciling work of God in Christ.

Gospel Matthew 6:1-6, 16-21
“Beware of practicing your piety before others in order to be seen by them; for then you have no reward from your Father in heaven.” – Jesus declares at the beginning of the Sermon on the Mount that, in order to enter into God’s dawning reign, our righteousness must exceed that of the scribes and Pharisees. Now, having spoken about the meaning of the commandments (in contrast to the way they are taught by the scribes) Jesus turns to the acts of piety for which the Pharisees were known. Our prayer, fasting and charity must be done not for public acclaim but to please God.

 

Image: John Bennett [CC BY-SA 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

Time to plow

Watching for Ash Wednesday, February 18, 2015

Monday

File:A Stiff Pull.jpgWednesday we begin our Lenten journey, our spiritual pilgrimage to the three days in which the great mystery of God’s healing and reconciling work in Christ are celebrated. The “holy city” to which we travel are those events in which Christ kneels to wash our feet, breaks with us the bread of life, is arrested and stripped of all honor and glory, is debased and broken upon the cross, and laid in a tomb. The work of God to heal and reconcile and save our sorry world is brutally rejected. No single act could reveal the collective rebellion of humanity from the way of God than this. Among us, when the emissary of a king is so treated, it is cause for war. But God chooses not to take revenge. He raises Jesus from the dead, bearing witness to us that Jesus is the perfectly faithful one whose words and deeds are true.

We have to prepare ourselves to experience again that story. It’s not that we are cleansing ourselves by some outward ritual to participate in a sacred rite – we are tilling the ground, breaking up the soil of our hearts, so that we will be ready to hear and receive all the power and grace of this message – so that it can take root in good soil and bear abundant fruit in us.

We need time to get ready. We need to plow the ground. We need to pull the stumps and clear the weeds.

Ash Wednesday is the first step of this spiritual journey. It points the direction we must travel. Repentance is not about guilt; it is the recognition that we need to turn back to the path, renew the journey, remember the stunning grace of God and live it anew.

The Prayer for Ash Wednesday

By your prophets, O God, you call us to repentance and faith
leading us on a journey into wholeness and life.
Watch over us, renewing our lives and our world
that, abiding in your grace, we may prove faithful to you and to all

The Texts for Ash Wednesday, 2015

First Reading: Isaiah 58:1-12 (We are using the alternate this year)
“Is not this the fast that I choose: to loose the bonds of injustice, to undo the thongs of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free, and to break every yoke?” – After the return from exile in Babylon, life was hard and Jerusalem and its temple continued to lie in ruins. The people complained that God did not respond to their prayers. The prophet challenges the meaning of such prayers when the people fail to embody the life of justice and mercy to which God called them.

Psalmody: Psalm 103:8-14
“He has not dealt with us according to our sins, nor rewarded us according to our wickedness.” – In our parish, we use the appointed Psalm 51 (the famous cry of repentance by David after he has been confronted by the prophet Nathan over the murder of Uriah and the taking of Bathsheba ) in the confession at the beginning of our liturgy. When we come to the time for the psalm we hear the poet speak of the tender love and faithfulness of God who has “removed our sins from us” “as far as the east is from the west.”

Second Reading: 2 Corinthians 5:20b-6:1 (Appointed: 5:20b-6:10)
“We entreat you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God.”
– Paul calls his troubled congregation to live within the reconciling work of God in Christ.

Gospel Matthew 6:1-6, 16-21
“Beware of practicing your piety before others in order to be seen by them; for then you have no reward from your Father in heaven.” – Jesus declares at the beginning of the Sermon on the Mount that, in order to enter into God’s dawning reign, our righteousness must exceed that of the scribes and Pharisees. Now, having spoken about the meaning of the commandments (in contrast to the way they are taught by the scribes) Jesus turns to the acts of piety for which the Pharisees were known. Our prayer, fasting and charity must be done not for public acclaim but to please God.

Assigned First Reading: Joel 2:1-2, 12-17
“Blow the trumpet in Zion; sanctify a fast; call a solemn assembly; gather the people.” – Facing a terrible plague of locusts, the prophet calls for the people to turn to God, marking themselves with dust and ashes, rending their hearts that God may see their desperate plight and come to their aid.

 

Photo: Peter Henry Emerson [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Unquenchable fire

The Evening of Ash Wednesday

Psalm 51

File:0507 HRO Strandparty PICT5896.jpg10 Create in me a clean heart, O God,
and put a new and right spirit within me.

I learned something new this year.

We begin our Ash Wednesday service with the burning of the palm fronds that people received last Palm Sunday and brought from home that, with their ashes, we might mark the beginning of Lent.  We burn them in a small fire pit – and though I purchase commercially prepared ashes to use, I also symbolically add some of the palm ashes to the bowl.  The purchased ashes simply work better; they have just the right mix of oil and fine ash to stick to a forehead without making a mess.

As the fire settled, I used the tongs to pick out a small, perfectly sized wisp of ash.  As I brought it towards the bowl, I realized this thin string of burned palm had a small glowing ember on the end.  But rather than return it to the fire and choose another, I assumed it was ready to go out, dropped it in the bowl, and we began the silent procession into the sanctuary, following the cross.

But the ember didn’t go out.

As I held the bowl for the prayers and opening words of the confession, I realized it was still glowing.  By the time we had finished the portion of Psalm 51, the bowl was getting warm.  I had to be careful not to stick my thumb into the glowing coal as I began to put ashes on peoples foreheads.  The bowl continued to get warmer, the glow seemed to grow larger, and I realized that the small ember had ignited a small spreading fire among that perfect mixture of charcoal and olive oil.

If our attendance had been much larger, I might have been in trouble.

The blaze of fire from the palm fronds was meant to speak to us of the fragility and evanescence of life.  The psalmist acknowledges life’s brevity: we are ephemeral like grass.  And the prophet proclaims, All people are grass, their constancy is like the flower of the field. But the prophet’s declaration leads to the confession that though we are fickle, the promise of God is not: “the word of God will stand forever.”

Like that small ember slowly spreading through the ashes, God’s promised grace endures and spreads and sets alight not just a few hearts here and there but, quietly, patiently, like yeast spreading through the whole loaf or a mustard seed cast into the ground, it works relentlessly to transform the whole world.

May it ever burn within me.

Hope and grace

Tuesday

Joel 2

File:Nube de langostas en el Sáhara Occidental (1944).jpg2Like blackness spread upon the mountains
a great and powerful army comes.

Some disasters give you no warning: the earth shakes and fear overwhelms you only in the moment you realize this is a big one.  But other disasters you see on the horizon: the thick dark clouds that tell of an impending storm, the sickly green sky that warns you this one has the potential for terror, the strange stillness that fills you with dread as you watch and wonder and wait to hear if the tornado sirens will sound.

I wonder if all the people see what the prophet sees: the dark cloud of the massive swarms of locusts advancing like waves – or if the prophet has been given a vision of what is yet beyond the horizon.

So much of the prophetic literature arises from what the prophets see that others do not yet see.  Isaiah sees the advancing storm of Assyria, Jeremiah the impending doom of Jerusalem at the hands of Babylon.  The city is filled with illusion.  The elites do not see that their common life is corroded with injustice and near collapse.  The prophets are attacked as unpatriotic; they wouldn’t join the chorus that “We are the greatest country on earth.”  “God is on our side!”  “God will never let Jerusalem fall.”  The prophets saw instead the sufferings of the poor, the corruption, the greed, the end of compassion, the loss of justice.  They saw that God was ready to withdraw his protective hand.

In Greek mythology, Cassandra, the daughter of the king of Troy, received from the god Apollo the gift of prophetic sight, but because she spurned his sexual advances, he punished her with the curse that no one would believe her.  So she could see that Paris would kidnap Helen and prompt the Trojan War.  She could see the pending slaughter.  And she could see that Greek warriors were hiding in the belly of the great horse left by the (apparently) departing Greeks.  She cried out against the folly of tearing down the city gates to bring the horse into the city, but she was dismissed as crazy.  Perhaps it is the curse of every prophet to see that the nation is on the path of folly and have no one hear.

But Joel seems to be the exception.  The people responded to the sound of the shofar.  They came in repentance.  The poured out their prayers and turned their hope to God.  And “the LORD became jealous for his land, and had pity on his people.”

We read Joel on Ash Wednesday, hear his call to “return to the LORD” and sing that verse all through Lent.  We have the option to read Isaiah – and the text from Isaiah is wonderful – but the first choice is Joel.  And maybe the first choice is Joel because the people listened to Joel.  They came.  They prayed.  They turned to the Lord.  And God heard.  This one time, the call for repentance was met with obedience.

It is good to begin Lent with hope and grace.

To dust you shall return – but dust you shall not remain

Watching for Ash Wednesday, March 5

Lent 2014

Monday

photo-10Palm fronds burn.  The joy of last Palm Sunday is consumed by fire.  Ashes to ashes; dust to dust.

It is somber, but it is not dark.  Ash Wednesday is built on a foundation of joy – or, at least peace.  We face mortality as those who know Easter, as those who have seen the empty tomb, who have heard the joyful cry, who have faced the great mystery that God will not leave his creation in dust and ashes.  We come to remember that we are ashes; we are not gods.  But we come to be marked with the cross, the sign of the risen one who has erased our sin.  We are mortal creatures, but created anew in Christ.

Somber, because of the fearful price of our rebellion.  Somber because of the fearful brokenness of God’s good creation.  But gathered in the promise of heaven’s grace.  Gathered in the dawning light of the reunion of heaven and earth.  Gathered for the journey to Easter.

Remember that you are dust – but also claimed by the risen one.

The Prayer for March 5, 2014

Almighty God, Holy and Immortal,
who knows the secrets of every heart
and brings all things to the light of your grace.
Root us ever in your promised mercy
that, freed from every sin and shame,
we may walk the paths of your truth and love

The Texts for March 5, 2014

First Reading: Joel 2:1-2, 12-17
“Blow the trumpet in Zion; sanctify a fast; call a solemn assembly; gather the people.” – Facing a terrible plague of locusts, the prophet calls for the people to turn to God, marking themselves with dust and ashes and rent hearts that God may see their desperate plight and come to their aid.

Psalmody: Psalm 103:8-14
“He has not dealt with us according to our sins, nor rewarded us according to our wickedness.”Psalm 51 is used in at the beginning of our liturgy, the famous cry of repentance by David after he has been confronted by the prophet Nathan over the murder of Uriah and the taking of Bathsheba.  When we come to the time for the psalm we hear the poet speak of the tender love and faithfulness of God who has “removed our sins from us” “as far as the east is from the west.”

Second Reading: 2 Corinthians 5:20b-6:1
“We entreat you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God.”
–  Paul calls his troubled congregation to be reconciled to God, not to accept the grace of God in vain, saying that now is the right time for them to return to God.

Gospel Matthew 6:1-6, 16-21
“Beware of practicing your piety before others in order to be seen by them; for then you have no reward from your Father in heaven.” – Jesus has declared that our righteousness must exceed that of the scribes and Pharisees.  Now, having spoken about the meaning of the commandments (in contrast to the way they are taught by the scribes) Jesus now turns to the acts of piety for which the Pharisees are known.  Our prayer, fasting and charity must be done not for public acclaim but to please God.