Ok, being an Episcopal priest doesn’t exempt me from irreverence. For the past five years I’ve been the priest at my parish’s 7:15am Ash Wednesday service. The Psalm always read at the service is Psalm 103.
Psalm 103:14 reads, “For [God] himself knows whereof we are made; he remembers that we are but dust.” And that’s the moment I have to suppress a smile. (It’s probably more of a smirk.) In my mind I read it this way, “For [God] himself knows whereof we are made; he remembers that we are butt dust.” I know. It’s worse than irreverent. It’s juvenile.
Well, where do I go from here? How about this, since Ash Wednesday is just two days away let’s spend a few minutes thinking about it.
Ash Wednesday is the beginning of Lent. The opening prayer for Ash Wednesday service in the Book of Common Prayer sets the tone of Lent:
Almighty and everlasting God, you hate nothing you have made and forgive the sins of all who are penitent: Create and make in us new and contrite hearts, that we, worthily lamenting our sins and acknowledging our wretchedness, may obtain of you, the God of all mercy, perfect remission and forgiveness; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.
After that prayer follows the reading of Scripture, and then the Celebrant (i.e. the priest) stands and invites the people to the observance of a holy Lent. (If you want to read what the priest says, click here.)
So, you may be thinking, “Preacher, what’s the point of all this? It sounds so negative and guilt laden. Who needs it?” Well friend, my answer to your first question is, “The point of ‘all this’ is to remind us of who we are and that we need to be forgiven.” And my answer to the second question is, “We all need it.”
Ash Wednesday also reminds us that we’re all going to die. I know. It sounds like a terrible downer. Actually, being told that you’re both a sinner in need of forgiveness and that you’re going to die is positive. Because once you know who you are and what’s going to eventually happen to you, you suddenly get focused on what really matters—living.
St. Benedict said it this way, “Keep death always before your eyes.” Why did he say this? So that you’ll know how to live. Christianity is, in one sense, a long lesson in how to live forever. That’s why, every year, the Church invites us to participate in the season of Lent. During Lent the Church teaches us that the way to eternal life is to admit that we’re completely unfit for it. That we don’t deserve it, but that God still wants to give it to us and has made the way possible for us to receive it.
So the Church prescribes these practices for Lent: deny yourself some of your usual pleasures, go hungry for a little while, set aside additional time to pray, read something that will challenge you to grow as a follower of Jesus Christ, go out of your way to give to those who have less than you do.
Do Christians do this to impress God? To show God that we’re worthy of his love and mercy? We shouldn’t. It doesn’t impress God, and that’s not the point of it anyway. Do Christians do this because we love pain, because secretly we’re all masochists? Nope. We do it because we’re taking the time to focus our attention more intently on Jesus—his life, death, and resurrection from the dead.
I invite you to do the same this year. Take the wilderness path of Lent. If you do, you’ll find life rising like a phoenix from the ashes of death.
What Lenten practice are you doing this year? How are you focusing your attention more intently on Jesus? Share in the comments below.
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