Ash Wednesday (sermon)
Joel 2:12-17 James 4:1-10 St Matthew 6:16-21
"Your Father, who sees in secret,
shall reward you openly! "
Lent is a pilgrimage in heart and mind – to go up with Jesus to Jerusalem, all the way to the Cross and then to witness his Resurrection. We observe Jesus’ own journey and we participate in a way, taking up our cross through self-denial and outward acts of love.
I would like to say a few words about fasting and then about the imposition of ashes, the penitential rite that we will observe following this sermon.
First, about fasting:
I will repeat the warning I mentioned in our email newsletter on Monday:
- If you have struggled with eating disorders such as anorexia, or if you have particular health issues such as diabetes, it may be best to leave the fasting from food to others.
- You could consider another kind of fast – such as from your use of technology – screen time, or entertainment time – so you can be more spiritually attuned.
- If you are already super stressed for whatever reason – don’t stress yourself further, leave the fast this Lent, show mercy on yourself – instead think about ways to remove some of the stressors in your life, to enter into and enjoy more fully God’s rest.
If you don’t fall into these categories, then consider a fast from food.
Your fast could include choosing to eat less, such as skipping a meal or choosing to eat less at each meal, not going for the second portion.
Your fast could include choosing certain things to give up – red meat – that is seen as a minimum in an Anglican understanding of a fast (abstinence) or you could give up all meat. Some from the Adventist tradition are already doing this, so you’ll need to figure out something else to give up. It could mean sugar, desserts, alcohol, replacing spicy food with eating more plain fare. In the Orthodox Church they also give up eggs and dairy.
You could choose to give up some combination of these. For my part, I have found it helpful to not eat until noon, and to give up all meat, desserts and alcohol, and try to eat a little less at a meal.
Whatever you choose to do for your fast, don’t be extreme – what may seem simple at first, might become more difficult in the later days of Lent.
Don’t over-stress yourself.
Don’t be over-concerned if you have some moment of lapse from the fast – just return to it.
If someone offers you hospitality (which is love), don’t make a big deal of what you can’t eat, you can break your fast for the sake of receiving their love gratefully.
Sundays (or your Sabbath day) don’t count – you can begin to see the Sabbath day as a special day of joy and celebration of the Resurrection (even during Lent).
Fasting is not about punishing ourselves, but about awakening ourselves to God…
Here are some words from the late Orthodox Bp Kallistos Ware, which I repeat each year:
"If practiced seriously, the Lenten abstinence from food – particularly in the opening days – involves a considerable measure of real hunger, and also a feeling of tiredness and physical exhaustion. ... Lenten abstinence gives us (not the self-satisfaction of the Pharisee but) the saving self-dissatisfaction of the Publican (Luke 18:10-13). Such is the function of the hunger and the tiredness: to make us ‘poor in spirit’, aware of our helplessness and of our dependence on God’s aid.
"Yet ...fasting leads, not merely to this, but also to a sense of lightness, wakefulness, freedom and joy. Even if the fast proves debilitating at first, afterwards we find that it enables us to sleep less, to think more clearly, and to work more decisively. ...Fasting ...makes [the body] a willing partner in the task of prayer, alert and responsive to the voice of the Spirit. The Fathers simply state, as a guiding principle, that we should never eat [until we feel full] but always rise from the table feeling that we could have taken more and that we are now ready for prayer.
"... In both the Old and the New Testament fasting is seen, not as an end in itself, but as an aid to more intense and living prayer, as a preparation for decisive action or for direct encounter with God...to enable us, ... to ‘draw near to the mountain of prayer’."
Now about the Imposition of Ashes...
Since at least the 8th century, there has been a practice in the Western Church of the Imposition of Ashes on our foreheads as a sign of the start of our Lenten fast.
It is a sign of our mortality and penitence. [Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church]
In the Old Testament we see many places where there is a connection made between repentance and ashes.
- When great tragedy befalls Job, he tore his clothing and sat in ashes [1:20; 2:7], and his friends, when they saw him, tore their clothing and sprinkled dust on their heads, [2:12]. And later when God reveals himself in a whirlwind in response to Job’s cries, Job says, “I despise myself, and repent in dust and ashes.”
- In the Book of Esther, when Mordecai heard of the terrible decree of a planned destruction of the Jewish people, who were in exile, he tore his clothes and put on sackcloth and ashes and cried out in the marketplace, and it says the Jews in the provinces likewise did the same with fasting and weeping, “and most of them lay in sackcloth and ashes” [Esther 4:1-3].
- The prophet Daniel did the same, as he thought about the failure of God’s people and their suffering, he says that he “sought God by prayer, pleas for mercy, with fasting, sackcloth and ashes.” [9:3]
- God spoke through the prophet Jeremiah [6:26; 25:34] warning them of the disaster of their ways: “O daughter of my people, put on sackcloth and roll in ashes, make mourning…, bitter lamentation.”
- And it seems it was a practice in non-Jewish cultures also – the Assyrian king of Nineveh covered himself in sackcloth and fasted and sat in ashes, when he heard the prophesy of Jonah.  And God turned away his wrath, and the city of Nineveh was saved.
- And we have the words of Jesus [Mt 11:21], who cried out against the Jewish cities of Chorazin and Bethsaida: “Woe to you, Chorazin! Woe to you, Bethsaida! For if the mighty works done in you had been done in Tyre and Sidon [Gentile cities], they would have repented long ago in sackcloth and ashes.”
Sitting in ashes or putting it on the head was a universal sign of humiliation, or humbling ourselves, to recognize that: out of the earth we were formed and, despite all our pretenses to glory, we must not forget that we are merely mortal human beings, that we are dust and to dust we shall return. We can confuse ourselves about our true human nature with our fine clothing and our super cleanliness… This was a way of acknowledging our creatureliness.
You might wonder how this very public marking with crosses on our heads accords with tonight’s Gospel where Jesus tells us when we fast, to anoint our heads and wash our face, so we don’t appear to be fasting to others. Jesus is against a private showing off of our devotion – this act we do tonight is together, no one is showing off in that sense. It is like the ancient public fasts proclaimed in Israel, as we will hear shortly, through the prophet Joel. We will not keep the cross on our foreheads throughout Lent, but wash our faces tonight, and recall it inwardly. It will be for us tonight an act of solidarity with one another that we begin this fast together.
But maybe some are asking if we really feel the need to suddenly become repentant as we start Lent? It is helpful for us to recall the situation we find ourselves:
- In Scripture it is often the case that when the times were desperate, a fast was proclaimed for all to participate in, to avert God’s wrath, as I noted earlier in the passages from Esther and Daniel and Jeremiah. There has always been a real sense that we share guilt in some sense for the failings of the society in which we live, and that as a “priesthood of all believers” we are to intercede to God for others.
- We need only look at the news to find reasons for weeping and fasting and repentance. The horror and the very dark witness to the world of Orthodox Russia invading Orthodox Ukraine…
- Surely the state of the Church in this Kingdom of the Netherlands, with only 10% of the population attending church regularly, is a reason for weeping and fasting and repentance? Was has happened to the Christian witness? May God put fire in our hearts!
- Within the Church of England itself, I believe the recent proposal of the House of Bishops and decision of General Synod, to allow blessings in our churches of individuals in same-sex relationships, is reason for deep mourning and fasting and repentance.
- When we look at the difficulties we see in the struggles of friends and family, and in our personal relationships with them, we can all bring matters to God that can be the subject of mourning and fasting and repentance.
- Most importantly, when we look at our own souls, and the lack of progress in our sanctification, of our unfaithfulness in small and great ways with our callings and with the many gifts showered upon us by God, we have reason to mourn and to fast and to repent.
God does not want to humiliate us or to shame us, but God wants us to be completely honest before Him, because it is only in complete honesty that we are ready to receive and to respond to the grace He would shower upon us. This is why we abase ourselves tonight.
Lent is a time of self-denial, but if it is properly observed, with a lively faith, it leads us to true joy even in the midst of the fast. May love be the motivation of our fasting, and a may greater love for God and our neighbour be the consequence.
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Except the Lord build the house, they labour in vain that build it: except the Lord keep the city, the watchman waketh but in vain. Psalm 127:1,2