Homily by The Rev. Marcia McRae
St. John’s Episcopal Church, Bainbridge, GA; Ash Wednesday, 18 Feb. 2015
Year A RCL: Joel 2:1-2,12-17; Psalm 103; 2 Corinthians 5:20b-6:10; Matthew 6:1-6,16-21
Beware of practicing your piety before others.
Rend your hearts & not your clothing, Joel tells us in our first reading, bringing to mind our reading Sunday about Elisha tearing apart his clothes as Elijah is taken up into heaven by that fiery chariot. Jesus tells us God wants us to change what's inside: that's more important than to make a dramatic show of our sorrow by tearing our clothes.
Jesus tells us
Beware of practicing your piety before others.
How do we reconcile what Jesus says with what we do on Ash Wednesday when we have our foreheads marked with ashes to start Lent?
Lent is compared to an athlete's spring training, a time to tone our spiritual muscles. As we take on spiritual practices & give up something for Lent, we discipline ourselves in our walk with Christ. Discipline often calls to mind punishment.
Yet “discipline” has the same root as “disciple.”1
he Greek word for discipline means “to learn”, “to apprentice,”
“to get to know”.2
(It) means to learn a way of life or a skill by entering into a relationship with a master. The apprentice imitates the master.”3
As we learn to imitate our Master, Jesus, we learn how to handle ourselves inside – within our hearts. So when we leave here with ashes on our foreheads, especially if we have errands to run & see people other than family, we can speak from a place of confidence to share God's love with people who may look at us quizzically, helpfully point out we have a smudge, or ask outright about it.
We can speak boldly about God's love because, unlike Joel & the people in his day, we know the rest of the story: Jesus dies for us on that cross to blot out all our sins.
Are we perfect? Far from it. Are we sinless? No. But we have an advocate with God the Father, Jesus Christ the Righteous. Through the power of the Holy Spirit, we have the grace to confess our sins & come to this table week after week to ask for pardon & renewal, for solace & strength to do the work God gives us to do – such as bravely interacting with someone in a store who asks about that smudge on your forehead.
Lent is a time to take a new look at your life,
including your spiritual life.
Lent gives us time for internal spring cleaning,
which may include the work of forgiveness.
Remember: Forgiveness is not reconciliation.4
Forgiveness is a gift you give yourself.
“Forgiveness is about our conversion...not...conversion of the person who wronged us. To forgive...we have to change [convert] the way we see them.”5
This may lead to a sense of needing something more than you receive week by week as we say The Confession together. The longing for a deeper sense of forgiveness is why the Prayer Book offers us the Rite of Reconciliation of a Penitent.
It offers you two forms to select from for this sacrament. Details start on BCP page 446. I encourage you to review the pages. If you feel it would benefit you, I will be hear your private confession. I have gained great peace & renewed strength from receiving this sacrament myself.
Like the outward sign of ashes on our foreheads, the sacrament of reconciliation is a strong reminder that, although we are dust, God's great love & creative power heals our brokenness.
May the ashes we receive remind us of our need for God
God’s love for us.
May we remember that God is slow to anger & quick to forgive. May we remember that Jesus tells us to do more than practice our religion for the right reason. Jesus tells us to be joyful about it.
Ashes are black like the darkness & gloom that Joel speaks of: “Like the blackness spread upon the mountains...” This verse in The Jewish Study Bible says: “Spread like soot over the hills.”6
This “soot” from burned palms from Palm Sunday helps us mark a new Liturgical season. Much of what we do in this season developed from St. Cyril, Bishop of Jerusalem, whom we remember in March on the date of his death in 386.7
Like St. Cyril, you know that you are dust & to dust you will return. Like the newest saints in heaven, the 21 Coptic Christians killed, you also know that you are you are Beloved Dust8.
Knowing how profoundly Jesus loves us, gives martyrs, such as the 21 newest saints, the strength
to declare their faith in their last breath.
Each said: “Jesus, save me.”9
Ashes to Go. http://ashestogo.org/about/. Accessed 5 March 2014.
Christ Our Hope: Daily Lenten Devotions of Henri J. Nouwen. Ed: Paul Pennick. Creative Communications for the Parish. www.creativecommunications.com.
The Book of Common Prayer. New York: Church Publishing, Inc. 1986.
Harper’s Bible Dictionary. General Ed.: Paul J. Achtemeier. San Francisco: Harper & Row Publishers. 1985.
Holy Bible with the Apocrypha. New Revised Standard Version. New York: Oxford University Press, 1989.
Hughes, Robert Davis III. Beloved Dust: Tides of the Spirit in the Christian Life. New York: The Continuum International Publishing Group Inc. 2008.
Jewish Study Bible: Jewish Publication Society TANAKH Translation. New York: Oxford University Press. 2004.
Lectionary Page. http://www.lectionarypage.net/. Accessed: 16 Feb. 2015.
Lesser Feasts and Fasts: 2003. New York: Church Publishing. 2003.
New Oxford Annotated Bible with the Apocrypha. Eds: Herbert G. May, Bruce M. Metzger. New York: Oxford University Press, Incorporated, 1977.
Taylor, Porter. From Anger to Zion: An Alphabet of Faith. Harrisburg: Morehouse Publishing: A Continuum imprint. 2004.
Words of Our Worshop: A Liturgical Dictionary. Compiled by: Charles Mortimet Guilbert. New York: The Church Hymnal Corp. 1988.
1 Taylor, Porter. From Anger to Zion: An Alphabet of Faith. P. 37.
4 Ibid. P. 52.
6 Jewish Study Bible: Jewish Publication Society TANAKH Translation. P. 1169.
7 Lesser Feasts and Fasts: 2003. P. 190-191.
8 Concept from Hughes, Robert Davis III. Beloved Dust: Tides of the Spirit in the Christian Life.
9 Quotation Source: Various news reports.