Ash Wednesday, February 21, 2007
We’ve been away from the manger just 58 days. The manger child, as with all children, ages so fast. Another thought I have as we gather today is that some of us are closer to the tomb than the womb, others of us are growing as fast as the manger child did, who will soon be where the rest of us are. Time passes fast. The church challenges us to STOP, suggests that we THINK, and PREPARE.
I gave up drinking Southern Comfort Manhattans one Lenten Season. I loved them...on the rocks, with sweet vermouth. I knew it would be a ‘sacrifice’. I switched to beer, buying several cases in preparation, to get through the 46 days of ‘desert experience’. At least I would be refreshed in the desert! Retrospectively, I guess I must have put STOP, THINK, PREPARE in a corner of the cerebrum that wasn’t working too well, or a heart not well-connected to the brain. We get a little reckless in youth. But as we move closer to the tomb than the womb, maybe Ash Wednesday can be a healthy slap to the East side of the skull...we are not going to be around forever!
Lent is the church’s way of telling time. It’s the church's way of remembering the adult Jesus (how everything ended), rather than the baby Jesus (how everything began). For some, Lent is a disciplined effort at self-improvement, but it needs to be more than forty days to thinner thighs. Lent can involve a conscious decision to better the self in ways deemed necessary or spiritually beneficial: services rendered, habits reformed, kindness given back. For others, Lent is the church’s encouragement to go inward, to investigate the interior life: to be, rather than do, to deepen, rather than widen, to re-live the Lord’s 40 days desert experience, staring down temptation, stepping up to obligation, listening to God, meditating, praying and appreciating silence.
As for giving something up, or taking something on, you be the judge. And as for doing better, versus digging deeper, well we must each be the judge of that, too. Ask yourself a question: "Which needs more work, my behavior or my interior?" Only you know. Easter new life, never comes to those who don’t prepare for it. Something within us must die, in order for something else to be born.
Every journey begins with a first step. This is what Ash Wednesday represents, a first step. If ashes are helpful, we need to use them to remind us to stop, think and prepare. Ashes are a pretty potent symbol, reminding us of our mortality. None of us are getting younger. My first year as a priest, our Pastor directed us associates to distribute ashes after the homily, as spelled out in the missalette today. People left Mass in throngs after they had their foreheads marked with a cross. That dishonor to the Eucharist changed me for life. Eucharist is more important than ashes. Eucharist is LIFE in its fullness, with ashes only symbolizing death. We are a-long-time dead, so....why don’t we enjoy life with the Lord in the Eucharist, for as long as possible? We are called to STOP, THINK and PREPARE. Examination heof the heart is up to us. Taking it slow, thinking it out, preparing well, is what today is about. Accept the cross, on the forehead. But, remember, the cross as grizzly as it may be, proposes a new life.
It's important to think about what he says. First, he is right: many of us (including myself, I think) are "closer to the tomb than the womb." I look at many people, especially the ones I see in my day-to-day work, and I believe there are more of us in that condition than in the other; every day we live brings us closer to our own death. Unfortunately that death comes more quickly for some than others, as well. We were called to a cardiac arrest event Thursday morning - a 63 year-old female with some disabilities, including epilepsy. She'd been down for at least 12 hours when we got to her, evident by her body being past rigor mortis, the lividity that was present, and some facial deformity that happened because she had been found lying on her stomach and was rolled to her back. From all accounts, this was a good person who was taking care of her invalid husband up to her own death. If you look at this from a purely clinical point of view, that aspect of her life would be ignored because it wasn't relevant to her medical condition at the time of her death. From a purely human perspective, her health would be given a passing glance but her life would be measured, and this is one of the things that would be remembered. From a spiritual perspective, however, neither would matter. Her relationship with God would be looked at, as well as whether or not she was ready to face death when it came. I don't necessarily mean consciously ready, although some would argue that this would be part of the equation. I mean this: was her soul at peace with herself and did she have a relationship with God that was personal and healthy? Only she would know that, of course; nobody else, not even the person she was closest to, would know.
My friend makes the statement that "Lent is the church's way of telling time." I believe that this is at least partially true, as I believe the entire church year does this for us at some level. I know that the liturgical year is sort of a microcosm of the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus, looked at in the concept of seasons, so to speak. It's interesting that the seasons of the year and the church calendar are as synchronized as they are; the beginning of the church year in Advent and Christmas track with the beginning of winter and the end of our calendar year. Lent matches to late winter, Easter (or Pascha, to my eastern Christian friends) to early spring. Pentecost brings the fire of the Holy Spirit to the heat of early summer. The Feast of Christ the King comes at approximately the same time as Thanksgiving in the United States.
Lent, specifically, is a look at the journey that Jesus made in His adult ministry on his way to the Cross. There is triumph on the way, specifically when He makes his way into Jerusalem and He is greeted with palms. There is crisis: Judas Iscariot faces the internal crisis of the decision he needs to make regarding whether or not to betray his Master; in the end, we know what happens. There is the drama and tragedy of the Passion, which ends in the death of Jesus on the cross. Finally, there is triumph in the end with the Resurrection.
I know this is a very simplistic way to look at what is, for many, the most important part of their journey of faith. I believe, personally, that Jesus' death and resurrection represents much more than His birth did. That is not to say, obviously, that His birth was unimportant; without Him being born, He could not have been able to give His life for us. I guess what I'm trying to say is that people in general seem to put more importance on His birth than His death and resurrection. It's as though our perspective as a society is misplaced.
Would I accept death on a cross for myself? Probably not; I've read that is a horrible way to die. And not that I'm a wuss - I don't think I am, in fact - but I'm not sure I could handle it, especially the way it was done to Jesus. That said, would I die for my beliefs? Perhaps I would. My faith is strong, and I like to think I have the courage of my convictions to the point where I would take a bullet or be set on fire for them. But the cross? That's more than I think I could handle. But Jesus said, "Take up your cross and follow Me", didn't He?
I can only summarize my thoughts with a single two word sentence: Be ready. I believe that is the point my friend was making in his homily. And I believe it is advice worth taking, as life as we know it could be taken from any of us at any time. I see it every day.