Saturday, February 21, 2009

Homily: Ash Wednesday (25 February 2009)

Ash Wednesday Homily: 25 February 2009
(Joel 2:1-2, 12-17/Psalm 51/2Corinthians 5:20b-6:10/Matthew 6:1-6, 16-21)
Where, O death, is your sting?

Holy God, Holy and Mighty, Holy Immortal One, have mercy upon us.

I came to liturgical worship in mid-life – not so very long ago – so I well remember kneeling at the altar rail for the first time to receive the imposition of ashes on Ash Wednesday. My wife was to my right with our daughter between us. As Father John made his way from penitent to penitent he reached them first. As he signed each of them with the cross he intoned the ancient words of scripture and the church: “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.” And for the first time, though I had known death before, I was struck that night in a profound and visceral way by the unique human condition: we alone among all creatures are aware of our mortality. Such is the power of sacramental action, of the signs and symbols, the rites and liturgy of the church. I knew in that moment that everything I cherished most in the world – those two who knelt beside me – were dust and to dust must return. I have not yet recovered from that first Ash Wednesday; pray, God, I never do.

On Ash Wednesday, more than any other day, the church reminds us that we are mortal, that we all must die. Death is our common human inheritance, bequeathed by fallen Adam to all his fallen children. There is a strange, spiritual symmetry here, the church tells us. Adam’s sin brought forth death, and now, death brings forth sin among Adam’s children. The awareness of our mortality – of our impending death – stirs and awakens passions within us. Because we sense we were made for eternity we rebel against mortality. These passions propel us into a quest for power: every act of dominance, from the sarcastic comment to war among nations, is a futile show of power in the face of death. We will conquer; we will survive. These passions propel us into narcissism and self-absorption: every botox injection, every facelift, every overweight middle-aged man who leaves the wife of his youth for the ideal nymph, testifies to man’s vain effort to forestall age and death. We will not go silent into that dark night. These passions propel us into mind and body numbing stupors – anything to ease the aching awareness of mortality: every eating or drinking binge, every abuse of drugs, every sexual hook-up is an injection of existential novacaine that fails to deaden the nerve of our approaching end. Death stirs and awakens our passions and these passions bring forth our sin. “Where, O death, is your sting?” Paul asks. He well knows: “The sting of death is sin,”(1 Cor 15:55-56). Death is the enemy; it destroys us – if it does – through its power of sin.

So the church teaches. We have inherited the fallen human condition – we have inherited death. Awareness of death stirs passions within us, passions that strive toward eternity, quite often in vain and destructive directions. Sin is born of these passions. So, whatever in this world or the next, is the church thinking when she says to us, “Remember that you are dust and to dust you shall return,” as she confronts and seals us with the sign of our mortality? Why does the church stir up these passions within us? In the wisdom of the Holy Spirit the church knows that these passions must be awakened and confronted through the power of the cross, through the power of the sinless One who conquered death by dying and who rose to life everlasting.

“Death has been swallowed up in victory.
Where, O death, is your victory?
Where, O death, is your sting?”
The sting of death is sin, and the power of sin is the law.
But thanks be to God! He gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ (1 Cor 15:55-57, NIV).

This is the wisdom and power of God, that when Mother Church traces on our foreheads the sign of our mortality she does so in the form of the death-conquering, life-giving cross of the Lord Jesus Christ, to whom be blessing and honor and glory and dominion forever and ever. Amen.

This is the wisdom and power of God, that when Mother Church stirs our passions she arms us for the ensuing struggle: “For our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms. Therefore, put on the full armor of God, so that when the day of evil comes, you may be able to stand your ground, and after you have done everything, to stand” (Eph 6:12-13, NIV).

Yes, Mother Church equips us for battle with the passions – passions St. John describes as “the lust of the flesh, the lust of the eyes, and the pride of life” (1 John 2:16, NKJV). We battle the lust of the flesh – all our sensual indulgences – through abstinence: prayer and fasting, the church prescribes. For the lust of the eyes – all our selfishness and greed, our compulsive need to acquire – the church prescribes almsgiving, a free gift of the material goods entrusted to us. The pride of life? For this poison of control and domination the church offers as antidote the basin and the towel, the cross, and the way of Jesus – a way of humility and service.

These Lenten disciplines are the church’s way of struggle against the passions which lead to sin and alienation from man and God. But, they are far more: the Lenten disciplines are a way of transformation of these passions into the one, all-consuming and life-giving passion for God. The church is not na├»ve; passions cannot simply be defeated once-for-all or, worse still, repressed. Passions must be transformed by the cross and resurrection of Christ. The season of Lent, which can seem like a via negativa, a negative way of renunciation, must be experienced instead as a via positiva, a positive way of transformation. We fast from food that we might feast on prayer and Scripture and the Eucharist – the bread of heaven and the cup of salvation. We give our alms that we might store up treasure in heaven; we sell all lesser pearls that we might buy the one pearl of great price. We serve, we become least of all, recalling Christ’s words that he came to serve to set us an example, and that the one who is least of all is great in the kingdom of heaven. The church, in her Spirit-inspired wisdom, prescribes for us practices to transform our lesser passions into the one passion worthy of those created in the image of God: to love the Lord our God with all our heart and soul and mind and strength.

So, let us fast that we might learn to feast. Let us give, let us empty ourselves, that from God’s abundance we might receive the fullness of the Spirit. Let us serve that we may follow the way of Christ. Let us face our mortality, awaken our passions, and transform them through the cross of Christ. Let us exchange the things of earth for the things of eternity (Laudable Exchange, John Michael Talbot).

Let us pray.

O Lord, who hast mercy upon all,take away from us our sins,and mercifully kindle in us the fire of thy Holy Spirit.Take away from us our hearts of stone, and give us hearts of flesh,hearts to love and adore Thee, hearts to delight in Thee,to follow and enjoy Thee, for Christ's sake. AmenSt. Ambrose of Milan, adapted (AD 339-397)

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