A HOMILY FOR ASH WEDNESDAY 2014
The Christian season of Lent begins today. Traditionally Lent has been a period of denial and mortification of the flesh, of penitence, of self-examination, prayer and repentance. The days leading up to Lent are known as Carnival, because people traditionally are saying farewell to things fleshly, and the eating of meat. I don´t know about you, but I haven’t been to any wild carnival parties, but that does not make Lent unnecessary for me.
Lent lasts 46 days, from today Wednesday, March 5 until Easter Sunday, or 40 days if we exclude Sundays. In some traditions on Sundays are exempted from the rigors of fasting. In others, the fourth Sunday is Laetare Sunday-“Rejoice Sunday”, when we celebrate a mid-point in Lent. Flowers are allowed on the altar, and priests may use rose-colored vestments. The fasting of Lent is relaxed.
Traditionally, the universal church had us give up something for Lent. We gave up meat, alcohol, tobacco, cheese, or bacon, things we liked perhaps too much. Some people do this. Some people fast on certain days. I am not going to say that these practices are without merit. It is good to get away from rich foods, from alcohol and tobacco, if only for a few weeks. It is good to know the hunger of those who do not eat because they have no food. But all of this misses the point.
What kind of a Lent should we have? Our readings today are a guide for us to what God would have us do. In the passage we read today from Isaiah the Lord tells us through the prophet that he is not impressed by our fasting, or by our lying in burlap and ashes. Why? Because those who fast and smear themselves with ashes are putting on a show. They continue to fight with one another and to oppress their workers. They do not loose the thongs of oppression. They continue to speak evil, to make accusations and to ignore the needs of the poor and the hungry. The Lord will not listen to those who behave this way because there is a great hypocrisy inherent in their behavior. He wants a change of heart, a new behavior towards others in return for listening to us and protecting us.
“Is not this the fast that I choose: to loose the bonds of injustice, to undo the thongs of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free, and to break every yoke? Is it not to share your bread with the hungry, and bring the homeless poor into your house; when you see the naked, to cover them, and not to hide yourself from your own kin?
If you remove the yoke from among you, the pointing of the finger, the speaking of evil, if you offer your food to the hungry and satisfy the needs of the afflicted, then your light shall rise in the darkness and your gloom be like the noonday. The LORD will guide you continually, and satisfy your needs in parched places”.
So forget giving up whiskey, cheese, smoked salmon and rib-eye. Do something you have not done for the hungry, for the poor, for the oppressed. Help some of them rise from the hunger and need that ensnares them. If from the money you save by giving up these things you can help some who are poor and needy, by all means do so, but keep in mind that your sacrifice is meaningless- it is the actions that you undertake that are meaningful in your relationship with the Lord, and not your abstinences.
Isaiah’s words dovetail nicely with what Jesus says to us in today’s Gospel. Jesus is warning us against making a show of our religiosity, of our piety if you will. He wants us to do good silently and without fanfare. He wants us to pray privately and without fuss to God. He does not dissuade us from fasting, but enjoins us not to make a show of it. On the contrary, he urges us to be fresh-faced and shiny, as if we had not a care in the world when we are fasting-what we do in our relationship with God is a matter between us and the Lord, and not a matter for public display. Jesus strongly condemns the hypocrisy that riddles much of the religiosity we encounter, both the traditional and the modern forms, in his time, and in ours. The hypocrisy, the lack of conversion, the outward showiness of Lenten observance, renders it worthless and useless in the eyes of God. “Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust consume and where thieves break in and steal; but store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust consumes and where thieves do not break in and steal. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also."
Today, in the marking of our foreheads with ashes we are reminded that we are dust, and that to dust we shall return. Our physical selves will decay. That is why Jesus urges us to lay up treasure in Heaven, for the treasure laid up there is imperishable. Where our treasure is, there are our hearts, and if our treasure is not worldly but spiritual it shall not turn to dust.
I wish you a Holy Lent, a Lent in which you seek to put the words of the prophet Isaiah and the words of our Savior into action in your daily lives. That is my prayer also for myself. May God bless us and keep us, and make us instruments of His love and peace in this broken world. Amen.