holy cross sermon for ash wednesday, year a, march 5, 2014

In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

Today is Ash Wednesday, the first day of Lent. In just a few minutes I will formally invite you to the observance of a holy Lent, as the Prayer Book prescribes, and we will have ashes imposed on our heads with the words, “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.”

It’s a poignant thing, and its telling (to me at least) that, unlike most Christian things, Lent retains a certain popularity with secular people. The world doesn’t especially object to Lent. If anything, Lent is still remembered with some seriousness, even with some devotion by many secular people. Draw your own conclusions as to the significance of these facts.

What is it exactly that we are doing? What is the mystery of Ash Wednesday and of Lent? The invitation that I will formally issue in a few minutes bears consideration, so let me tell you what I am going to say before I say it. Its printed in the leaflet if you would like to follow along:

“Dear People of God: the first Christians observed with great devotion the days of our Lord’s passion and resurrection, and it became the custom of the Church to prepare for them by a season of penitence and fasting. This season of Lent provided a time in which converts to the faith were prepared for Holy Baptism. It was also a time when those who, because of notorious sins, had been separated from the body of the faithful were reconciled by penitence and forgiveness, and restored to the fellowship of the Church. Thereby, the whole congregation was put in mind of the message of pardon and absolution set forth in the Gospel of our Savior, and of the need which all Christians continually have to renew their repentance and faith.

“I invite you, therefore, in the name of the Church, to the observance of a holy Lent, by self-examination and repentance; by prayer, fasting, and self-denial; and by he reading and meditating on God’s holy Word….”

Lent is thus about much more than just “giving up chocolate” or some such. Its a time for us to get serious about the things that draw us away from God. And getting serious about them means firstly finding out what they are, and secondly renouncing them. Forgiveness is God’s free gift to us in the person of Jesus. But as I have often said, gifts must not only be given, but they also have to be received if they are to be of any benefit to the recipient.

Human life is full of things that draw us away from God. Sin is the most obvious such thing. Lust and avarice – the pursuit of sex and the pursuit of money –  seem to me to be the two great besetting sins of our time and place. But even otherwise good things can draw us away from God – things like our jobs, or television, or the internet, or preoccupations with this-or-that, and even otherwise good and salutary relationships. For each of us there is a catalogue of such obstacles, and each of our catalogues is unique to us as individuals. One person might be obsessed with following the news. Another might be inordinately devoted to success in business. Another might be consumed by the quest to get in shape or stay in shape. Sometimes very “churchy” people can even become obsessed with doctrinal or ritual purity – they can be so consumed by the ignorance or the carelessness of a preacher, or the sloppiness or imprecision of the liturgy, that they lose sight of the great End to which all the rest are but imperfect means. This last temptation can be especially poisonous.

In any event, each of us has proclivities and inclinations and weaknesses that makes us especially susceptible to certain kinds of distractions and obstacles to holiness. Lent is about identifying them and getting rid of them. We are like thirsty people, lost in a wilderness. There is plenty of rain, but our canteens are filled with sand. First we have to recognize and ADMIT that our canteens are filled with sand, and then get about the task of emptying and cleaning them so that they can catch the rain. It’s the only way to survive.

I have been advertising a little tract, available on the table in the narthex, called “Keeping a Holy Lent.” It goes into some detail about the five traditional areas of a complete Lenten rule. I encourage you to take one and read it, if you haven’t already. But I would like to conclude now with some concrete suggestions for things you might do during Lent:

1.   Go to confession
Confession is the means given to us by God himself to receive his forgiveness for the sins we commit after our baptism. I go to confession every week or two and, to be honest, I cannot imagine practicing the faith without it. I know people do, but I don’t know how. Use a good examination of conscience – like that in the St. Augustine’s Prayer Book (if you don’t have one and would like one, ask me.), or in the confession tract available in the rack in the narthex. Write down your sins, and go to confession and receive God’s forgiveness.

2.   Go to mass
Not just on Sundays and Holy Days of Obligation, but go to mass regularly on a weekday, or on several weekdays each week. Mass is the most perfect form of prayer, and it is the reality that empowers all other prayers, because it is the re-presentation of Jesus’ offering of himself to the Father on our behalf. Being incorporated into that offering is what saves us. And the mass is the means given to us by Jesus to do just that.

3.   Pray the Rosary
The Rosary is a terrific – maybe the best – form of Christian meditation. Again, the St. Augustine’s Prayer Book has a great set of instructions on how to use the Rosary. If you don’t have a set of Rosary beads, I can give you one. Just come see me. During Lent, you might consider meditating on the Sorrowful Mysteries every day, or a few times each week.

4.   Read the Bible
It has been said that prayers of intercession and petition – the kind of private prayer we are most likely to use – are our talking to God. But reading the Bible is listening to what God is saying to us. Read a short passage of the Bible every day – a few verses, or a single Psalm, or a single vignette from the Gospels. Read it slowly, reflect on its meaning and its grammar. Pray about it. Consider how the passage is applicable in your life.

5.   Pray the Stations of the Cross
Again, the St. Augustine’s Prayer Book has instructions and meditations for the Stations of the Cross. We will be praying the Stations together here every Friday during Lent at 6:00 pm, but you can also pray them on your own. This is a tried-and-true method of walking with Jesus spiritually along the way of his passion.

6.   Read a spiritual book
There are thousands of great books out there. A few classics that spring to mind are: C.S. Lewis’ “Screwtape Letters,” the “Imitation of Christ” by Thomas a Kempis, “Introduction to the Devout Life” by St. Francis de Sales, Augustine’s “Confessions,” “The Interior Castle” by St. Teresa of Avila, “The Story of  Soul” by St. Therese of Lisieux. The list could go on and on.

7.   Pray from your heart
John Henry Newman’s motto was “Cor ad cor loquitur” – “heart speaking to heart.” Prayer from and within the heart can be very fruitful and consoling. There is no better place to do it than in the presence of the Blessed Sacrament – Jesus’ real presence on earth. Come to mass a little early on a weekday, or stay a little late, and kneel or sit quietly, realize that you are in the presence of Jesus, and unburden yourself to him in your own words. Tell him your thoughts, your desires, your fears, your sins, your hopes, your disappointments, your goals… anything and everything. Then sit quietly and just listen for his voice in your heart. If you can’t make it to a church, then do it at a quiet time and place in your home. Early morning is usually the best time for prayer, before the events of the day begin to cloud your consciousness. Sit quietly in the conviction that HE HEARS YOU.

8.   Get off of social media and the internet
This is a dimension of being quiet. There is such a barrage of information, of psychic “noise,” in our world today that it’s a wonder anything of substance ever gets done at all. Resolve not to get on facebook or twitter, or to read the news, or go to movies, or watch TV during Lent, or severely limit yourself. Treat your smartphone like a regular phone – to be used only for phone calls. Get out of the habit of checking for updates every few minutes. Begin to fill the void left in your consciousness with prayer.

9.   Don’t read the paper or watch the news
A lot of the news is unedifying to begin with, and it s only reported to gratify our salacious appetites and thus generate advertising revenue for media executives. With one stroke you can stop feeding the fat-cats and also begin to clear your mind, and realize that the world will continue to turn without your constant cognitive engagement with it.

10.  Pay attention to your eating habits
Eat simpler and more healthy foods. Abstain from eating out at restaurants, or from eating fast food or junk food. Spend more time preparing your own meals at home. Spend time eating with friends and family, and thereby fostering the relationships to which God has called you, and practicing hospitality. Coming to our weekly Lenten supper at the church would fall under this rubric. Pray before AND AFTER your meals and make the sign of the cross.

11.  Forgive people
Each of us has been hurt by someone. Remember your past injuries at the hands of others, and let go of them. Offer them to Jesus. Forgiveness can be one of the most difficult things in the world. Make the sign of the cross and say something simple from your heart, like: “Jesus, I don’t know what to do with this injury – so I give it to you. I forgive such-and-such for hurting me. In the Name of Jesus, I renounce the unforgiveness I have toward such-and-such a person.” And pray that God would bless the people who have hurt you. Pray for them by name.

12.  Stop trying to fix things
The world is full of brokenness and hurt. Our lives are full of brokenness and hurt. As Christians, we should be a salutary presence, but we should leave the salvation to Jesus, who has already won. Very often the injustices of the world, or the injuries we have suffered, can be a catalyst for poisonous resentments to develop in our consciousness. We must not allow this to happen. Our task is to forgive evil, and not to produce evil in return. But repairing what is broken can only happen through the grace of the Cross. Spend less time being a do-gooder and more time in prayer.

I close with the prayer of St. Paul for the Christians in Ephesus: May God…

“…grant you to be strengthened with might through his Spirit in the inner man, and that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith; that you, being rooted and grounded in love, may have power to comprehend with all the saints what is the breadth and length and height and depth, and to know the love of Christ which surpasses knowledge, that you may be filled with all the fulness of God. Now to him who by the power at work within us is able to do far more abundantly than all that we ask or think, to him be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus to all generations, for ever and ever. Amen.”

In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

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About Fr Will

Fr Will Brown is rector of Holy Cross Dallas
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