My sermon for this Ash Wednesday was based on Matthew 6:1-21.
To download an audio of my sermon, click here.
And with these words, the whole tone of Lent is set: "Remember you are ashes, and to ashes you shall return". Sounds kinda morbid, doesn't it? That seems to be what many people think of Lent, both inside and outside the church: that Lent is a pretty morbid and somber season.
Which leads me to believe I must be doing something wrong, because I love Lent. I have been looking forward to Lent for weeks. Why? Because I have been feeling overloaded and tired out, and my connection with the divine is always the first thing to go out the window because I, like everybody else in the world, am prone to put things first in my life that have no business being in that position.
It doesn't make me feel good, and I am glad of the opportunity to realign my perceptions over the course of this season.
So Ash Wednesday marks the beginning of Lent, the period where we as Christians commemorate and reenact in our own lives Jesus' 40 days in the wilderness. As Jesus deprived himself of a number of comforts (shelter, good food, wine, company) over his wilderness experience, we are also called upon to give up a comfort or two of our own. Fortunately, we are not called to give up shelter, good food or company. But we are called upon to make a sacrifice.
The funny thing about most people in their Lenten sacrifice is that they have trouble seeing past the "I have given something up" to what is actually the real point of Lent: that you take something else up.
We are not just supposed to forsake the pleasure of wine, chocolate or whatever for the sole purpose of punishing ourselves (which is the extent of some people's Lenten observance) but we are actually supposed to redirect the time, energy, money and effort we would have otherwise spent on those indulgences to more sublime pursuits.
Instead of watching TV, pray. Instead of drinking wine or eating chocolate, meditate. Instead of smoking, spend that money on a charity.
The whole point of Lent is that we draw nearer to God, We don't do that simply by giving up the little pleasures in life. We do it by redirecting those energies to something that will actively bring us closer to the divine, however we may experience that in our lives,
Jesus took this to the extreme, and we are not called to follow him to that extent, but we are called into our wilderness, stripped of distractions, in order to draw nearer to God.
The ashes we impose on Ash Wednesday and the phrase clergy speak as they do so are not meant to bum us out, even though the gesture is meant to remind us in part of our own mortality. It is hard to escape the fact that we say this very same phrase at funerals.
Rather, this phrase is meant to remind us of that fantastic gift of life. I mean, we once literally were dust and we will all eventually literally return to dust. Somewhere in between life happens, and this was a great gift that was somehow breathed into us.
Ashes and Lent are actually meant to remind us how blessed we are, and to help us take those first steps back to God, back to a solid connection with him, with ourselves and with our neighbours. Lent is meant to be our wilderness where we experience the sacred.
I hope it is so for you.