Saturday, March 06, 2010

Guest Homily: Ash Wednesday

By Rachel Daley, our seminary intern

Winter is the quietest of all seasons. Large summer barbecues give way to quiet evenings at home with only our closer friends. The cold makes things quiet. Carefree youth may venture out for the occasional snowball fight, but the sensible will pass their time in the warmth indoors. The snow makes things quiet too, muffling the noises of a hectic world. The earth clothes itself in subdued grays, whites, browns, pale blue - shedding, for now, its blazing greens, reds, and yellows.

My grandfather, a Canadian, might suggest that winter makes us stronger. When he remembers the hardships his family faced, he tells me that they survived because of the strength of his mother, my great-grandmother, Kate Pike. To explain the source of her unyielding determination, my grandfather will say, “Well, she was a Newfoundlander, you see.”

Newfoundland is a large island in the North Atlantic Ocean known for long, brutal winters. My great-grandmother came from a place where winter was not peace and tranquility. Winter was a battle against ice fogs, freezing rain, and of course for the many who were fishermen, rough seas. After such adversity, Kate Pike was not to be undone when life proved difficult.

Though I don’t always like winter, I’ve come to think that it is a necessary part of life. However, that view may represent the sensibilities of my Canadian ancestors and you are free to disagree. Preferences of weather and climate aside, we certainly do need times of quiet and solitude. Nor can entirely escape the dark, quiet times, times when we struggle for our very survival.

As Christians we have set aside a season for silence and self-examination. We call it Lent, and like winter, it can be a difficult time. We’re something like the Newfoundlanders, perhaps, made strong through centuries of cold, dark struggle.

Like the chill of winter that keeps us inside, Lent is a season to shut the door to the world, to tend to our souls, to pray from the secret recesses of our hearts. We withdraw from religious displays and the ostentation of the streets to be alone with our Father. We seek out solitude and refuge from our noisy, demanding world. To those who would pray rightly Jesus commands, “Go into your room. Shut the door.” Examine your private room, turn over its contents, cleanse the heart of all invasions and interruptions. Pray secretly, earnestly, with single-minded striving for God your Father.

Lent is not like the beginning of winter when we are more inclined to relish the falling snowflakes. Those were busy days of sparkle and holiday cheer. We greet Lent in the middle of winter, as the fresh, shimmery snow turns to dirty slush. Where I grew up in the Midwest, days and weeks and months will pass without a trace of sunshine. By mid-February, the collective consciousness grows cranky; the winter blues set in. The days take on the monotony of the cloudy, grey skies above us, we long for warm air and bare feet, everyone is living at the edge of their skin. Lent coincides not with our December eagerness for snow angels and igloos, but with our tired February spirits that yearn for the day we will step outdoors without a winter coat.

Lent is a time when we remember the weakness of our own bodies. We meditate on the dust from which we were formed. Traditionally it has been a time for fasting or for doing without some luxury we enjoy. We fast so that by denying the body, God might feed the soul.

Now try explaining that logic to my childhood friend Amanda Wilwert. She complained that Lent did nothing except increase the general irritability of her household as her parents stayed clear of soda and chocolate. Certainly the fasting Jesus describes seems out-of-sync with today’s world. Christ would teach us that the path toward spiritual growth does not bypass our physical bodies - their discipline or their weakness. We give up the earthly things that rule us so that hearts may hunger for God alone. In the frayed nerves and noisy stomachs that a lack of food, caffeine, or sunlight might induce, we begin to realize how desperately we need God to sustain us.

This season reminds us that our bodies are ash, lifeless without the breath of God’s nostrils. We remember our limitations and our dependence, and, yet strangely perhaps, these limits are a comfort to us. We are dust, dependent on God in all ways, even for our very righteousness. We seek to do what is right, but when we do good with the right hand, the left hand knows and we congratulate ourselves. Jesus commands us to a righteousness that is not concerned with itself, so habitual as to be unaware of itself.

True righteousness gives for the sake of the one in need, prays out of need and for communion with God, fasts to glorify God alone. Of such goodness we are not capable, even our best efforts are imperfect and stained with sin. Repentance comes not so much in striving, but in weakness. Repentance takes root as we abandon the pretense that we will ever deserve God’s grace.

Even so, there is so much grace. Christ promises that in the cold, silence of winter, God will make your heart new. In struggle, in doubt, and in hunger, God will feed and comfort you, will meet you with the force of a sharp, winter wind. Let your heart draw near to God in repentance, that in this Lenten season God may plant the fruits of gratitude and righteousness.

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