Monday, February 4, 2008

Ash Wednesday Homily: 6 Feb 2008

Ash Wednesday: 6 February 2008
(Joel 2:1-2, 12-17/Psalm 51:1-17/2 Corinthians 5:20b-6:10/Matthew 6:1-6, 16-21)
The Wilderness Way

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.

For over 3000 years – from Moses until today – orthodox Jews have recited the Shema at morning prayer and at evening prayer and at the moment of death:

Sh’ma Yisrael Adonai Elohaynu, Adonai Echud.
Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one.

The prayer continues with the command to love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, and strength, words familiar to us because they were in the heart and on the lips of Jesus. When asked by a Torah scholar – a Jewish lawyer – what commandment in the law is greatest, Jesus replied,

“You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.” This is the greatest and first commandment (Mt 22:37-39, NRSV).

Love for God is the greatest end, the highest aspiration of man – love which integrates heart, soul, and mind.

Heart, soul, and mind. Imagine one, grand, ecumenical church service with all the body of Christ gathered together on one, vast pew.[1] At one end – right or left at your discretion – are gathered all our Charismatic brothers and sisters. You can tell where they are sitting because they are not sitting: they are standing and dancing and swaying and waving their arms and shouting, “Glory!” and perhaps other words in other tongues with which we are not so familiar. At the other end of the pew we find the Evangelicals. They have organized a Bible study and have passed out paper and pencils for taking notes. All is quiet there, save for the voice of the teacher, the flipping of pages, and the scratching of pencils. On one end of this pew lies the heart of Christ’s Body, on the other end the mind. Between them lies a void, a wasteland where few sit or travel – a wilderness. Of course a body can’t exist with just heart or just mind; it needs a life-force, a soul, to bind them together. We need something to draw the two ends of the pew toward the middle, something to infuse understanding into one end and passion into the other.

Lent has something to offer the church just here, I believe. Lent recalls those on both ends of the pew to the ancient ways of the church, to the time-tested and time-honored practices of the church – prayer, fasting, meditation, charity, and sacramental living among them – practices which are the “soul” of the church, practices which unite heart and mind.

When we gather to remember Jesus as he asked us to, we tell stories about him, we listen to his words, and we think his thoughts after him – all activities which engage the mind. But we don’t stop there. We spread a table. We share a feast of bread and wine – a feast which makes glad the heart. Together these words for the mind, and bread and wine for the heart unify and nourish our love for God.

When we pray, whether in the ancient words of the liturgy of the hours or in our own words spontaneously composed, we converse with God as rational beings, mind to Mind. But, when our concepts and reason have taken us as far as they can, the Holy Spirit searches our inmost being – searches our hearts – and prays for us in groans too deep to be uttered by human lips and formed by rational minds.

When we fast, we are reminded that “man does not live by bread alone, but by every word which comes from the mouth of God.” As we fast we cling to these words, we study them, we meditate upon them – all the more as our bellies grow empty. And, if we persist, we may just find a hunger deeper than that of our bodies and minds; we may just feel the hunger of the heart, a hunger that is satisfied only by Christ, himself. Fasting awakens that heart hunger, awakens it and satisfies it, so say the ancients, our fathers and mothers in the faith.

When we do acts of charity – and it’s time we begin to call these “acts of justice” since in God’s kingdom of righteousness and in God’s economy of justice all God’s people have their daily bread – when we do acts of charity our hearts open to our brothers and sisters in tangible expressions of love and our minds engage the powers and principalities of this dark world in seeking creative, Christian alternatives to rampant consumerism and gross economic disparity.

These ancient ways of the church, these Lenten practices, leave the ends of the pew and trek into the wilderness between them, beckoning people from both sides to follow. Those called to such ways follow Jesus into the wilderness; the forty days of Lent mirror his forty days in the wilderness praying, fasting, and meditating on the word of the Lord. No wilderness way is easy. The wilderness is a lonely place, a place full of temptations within and without. There are demons there. But there are angels also, and Jesus has gone before; he is there waiting for us.

Because the way is hard, we dare not go in our own strength. We go in the power of the cross, sealed by the cross as Christ’s own forever. We trace this cross on our brows with ashes – another ancient way of the church, uniting heart and mind – as a sign of our longing to love God with all our heart, soul, and mind. The ashes remind us of our human weakness and dependence: “Dust you are and to dust you shall return.” The cross reminds of the all-sufficient grace and power of the Lord Jesus Christ, that we are and ever shall be his.

Jesus calls you to the wilderness. The church offers her ancient ways as sure and trustworthy guides. You go, if you heed the call, in company with all the faithful of every time and place who seek truly to love God with heart and soul and mind. You go sealed with a cross of ashes, bearing the mark of your sin and mortality. You go sealed with a cross of ashes, bearing the mark of your forgiveness and immortality. You go sealed with a cross of ashes to unite heart and mind. Bearing the seal of the cross, let us go.


[1] I have shamelessly “stolen” this metaphor from Robert Benson – with his permission, of course. For information about Robert and his writing, see

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