Thursday, 15 February 2018

Ash Wednesday

When I noticed that Ash Wednesday (the official beginning of Lent) falls on Feb 14th this year I found myself fantasizing about drawing ash hearts on people’s foreheads.

“Saint Valentine”, the (probably legendary) 3rd century Roman priest and martyr who is connected to the day of romance lends nothing much to the day, save his name. Chocolate, flowers, and heart-shaped everything are the true icons of the day.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m not against romance. I got my wife a heart-shaped something. I do, however, think it is interesting that these days overlap this year. There is no lack of tension in the air tonight.

In our society we generally dislike the challenge of Ash Wednesday. It feels like such a downer. “Remember that you are dust” doesn’t get the heart pounding in the same way as “be my valentine”. February 14th this year is an unfair fight between a romantic dinner and liturgical reminder of our brokenness and death.

Perhaps there is a connection, though. The most tear-jerking moments in romantic stories usually have to do with one lover risking their life for the beloved. Think of the tragic story of Romeo and Juliet. Or, think of the moment Jack sinks into the freezing waters so Rose can survive the sinking of the Titanic. I wonder if those stories have such an impact because they point to another greater sacrifice for the sake of love. Perhaps an ash cross is a more appropriate symbol of love than an ash heart.

Sacrificial love seems to count for more. We don’t want someone to just love us when it is convenient. We want someone to love us even when it is hard- when it costs them something. Love that costs us something feels more valuable, more real. That’s what makes the cross so powerful. It expresses a love that doesn’t hold back- it expresses a love that is willing to give it all even to the point of excruciating pain. (ex crucio meaning 'from the cross'.)

That goes both ways though. Jesus calls us to deny ourselves and to pick up our own crosses- all for love. The German Theologian, Dietrich Bonhoeffer once wrote 
“If there is no element of asceticism in our lives, if we give free rein to the desires of the flesh (taking care of course to keep within the limits of what seems permissible to the world), we shall find it hard to train for the service of Christ. When the flesh is satisfied it is hard to pray with cheerfulness or to devote oneself to a life of service which calls for much self-renunciation” (Cost of Discipleship).
The discipline of Lent is about love. It is a way that we can enter into sacrificial love for our Lord.

The cultures of the world practice challenging disciplines as a part of practicing their faith. Fasting, for example, a traditional Lenten discipline, is a discipline of self-denial. It is an interesting coincidence that in our own society, that knows abundance and comfort like no other in history, has such an issue with practices of self-denial.

Sure some in our society might diet if it means fitting into those jeans again. Some might endure the pain of lifting weights for the sake of more impressive arms. (Dare I say these are disciplines of self love?) … But, sacrificing for spiritual reasons (for the love of God) has fallen out of fashion.

Jesus speaks about ego-destroying practices. 
Give, but don’t let anyone know it’s you. 
Pray, but pray where no one will pat you on the back for your holiness. 
Fast, but don’t tell everyone how hungry you are. 
Why all this secrecy? Jesus is planning the death of our false self. That is the self that needs people to be impressed by us. It is the self that is puffed-up by comparing ourselves to those around us. It is the self that does the rights things for the wrong reasons. It is the self that will do the right thing when they are being watched, but not when there are no social pressures to punish or reward. It is the self that doesn’t really think it needs God.

The secrecy Jesus calls us to exposes the desires of the false self. 
If we will only pray at church, but not alone at home- 
If we will only give if there is a brass plaque attached to the gift- 
If we will only fast when we hear friends say, “I don’t think I could do that. You’re so disciplined”- 
then our false self is probably driving those practices.

Jesus’ talk about treasure is really a way of talking about desire. Human beings follow what they truly love. Our desires will drive our actions. If we desire our egos to be stroked, then secrecy will starve that desire. If we desire God, the secrecy will purify that desire. The secrecy Jesus calls us to opens up questions within us- “Do we desire the right things? Are our desires aimed at the right goals?” Or are we, as the atheist Jean Paul Sartre said, a “useless passion”.

When we receive the ashes on our foreheads we are receiving what a friend of mine called, “a reverse sacrament”. A Sacrament is an “outward and visible sign of an inward and spiritual grace”. A reverse sacrament is an outward and visible sign of an inward and spiritual need. … Our deepest need is to love God. When that desire is purified everything else will fall in place. Without it life is just ashes (see 1 Corinthians 13). Lent is a time for the purifying and testing of that love.

God bless your journey and preparation for the cross where the God you loves you more than you can imagine held nothing back… all for the sake of love . AMEN

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