If you came this way,
Taking any route, starting from anywhere,
At any time or at any season,
It would always be the same: you would have to put off
Sense and notion. You are not here to verify,
Instruct yourself, or inform curiosity
Or carry report. You are here to kneel
Where prayer has been valid. And prayer is more
Than an order of words, the conscious occupation
Of the praying mind, or the sound of the voice praying.
And what the dead had no speech for, when living,
They can tell you, being dead: the communication
Of the dead is tongued with fire beyond the language of the living.
~ T.S. Eliot, “Little Gidding,” The Four Quartets ll.666-678
The following sermon was preached at Ash Wednesday Divine Service at Our Saviour Lutheran Church in Baltimore by my pastor and spiritual director, the Rev’d Charles L. McClean. I’m posting it here for two reasons. The first is that this blog and the church’s website have somewhat different readerships; the second is that it’s just a really wonderful sermon and it ought to be shared. It’s a great Ash Wednesday sermon; it’s a great Lenten sermon; it’s just a great sermon. Among other things, it explains why it is that we’re Lenting Lent. (Lent isn’t a verb— incidentally neither is “Jesus”— but that’s how the kids are saying it these days, so we’ll pretend just this once. Hopefully we’ll all put away childish things soon, though.)
Every year, Lent seems to present us Lutherans with a quandary. For centuries, the same basic questions regarding this penitential season have abounded, questions like, “What am I supposed to feel/think about when I am fasting?”, “Should I give up Facebook?”, “Do I dare to eat a peach?”, and “Isn’t Jesus going to Lent Lent for me?” While some continue to contend that a church which has the genuine Luthergeist will eschew traditions such as the imposition of ashes because they may be apt to make people think about the Law (a horrid prospect, to be sure), they can be safely dismissed— if you are interested in participating in the venerable traditions of the Church which our communion has conscientiously retained, that is.
If, on the other hand, you’re looking to understand why the Lutheran Church historically has had such a maximalist approach towards liturgy and catholic tradition, and not a reductionist one, and specifically you want to understand how Lenten penitential practices are not only “fine outward training” for the body, but ultimately evangelical and Christocentric, then this sermon is a good place to start. May it bless you as it has blessed me and mine.
Grace, mercy, and peace be to you from God our Father, and from our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Amen.
The Gospel which was read just a few minutes ago is a portion from Our Lord’s Sermon on the Mount where he talks about prayer, fasting, and almsgiving. He doesn’t command His followers to pray, to fast, to give alms; He assumes that His followers will pray, and fast, and give alms— the three traditional disciplines of the holy season of Lent, which we begin this night.
After a long and difficult winter, the kind of winter we’ve been having this year, just about everybody welcomes the coming of spring: the long winter nights give way to days of increasing light, winter’s cold and ice and snow are banished by the warm spring days; the crocuses and daffodils begin to lift their heads above the soil, and wherever we look we see signs of new and radiant life. Yes, after a long and difficult winter we welcome the coming of spring!
Well, spring in that sense is still some weeks away; but today, Ash Wednesday, we begin that season of the Church year which has often and rightly been called “the springtime of the soul.” In fact the word “Lent” is derived from an Old English word, lencten, which simply means “spring.”— “lencten” probably because of the lengthening days. And just as we welcome the coming of spring, just so we Christians welcome this “springtime of the soul.” For during this holy season, the seed of new and eternal life which was planted in us in Baptism is nourished and grows:
All the winter of our sins,
Long and dark, is flying
From His light, to whom we give
Laud and praise undying.
The “winter of our sins” is banished by the light and love of God’s crucified and risen Son. And those traditional Lenten disciplines of prayer, fasting, and almsgiving are aids in reaching out for that love and light.
In prayer we consciously reach out for love and light for others and for ourselves. Through alms-giving, which includes every act of kindness and generosity toward others, we try to reflect in some small way God’s kindness and generosity toward us poor sinners. In fasting we experience hunger and thereby learn that we are needy, radically dependent beings whose life is not our own: “It is He that hath made us and not we ourselves,” and by foregoing for a season perfectly good and legitimate pleasures we get rid of some of life’s distractions so that we can more clearly see ourselves as we are, God as He is, and also what God is asking of us through all the seemingly insignificant instances of life as we experience it day by day. As the nineteenth century Christian poet John Keble put it:
The trivial round, the common task,
Will furnish all we ought to ask;
Room to deny ourselves— a road
To bring us daily nearer God.
And so the Lenten disciplines of prayer, fasting, and alms-giving can be compared to weeding your garden— not an end in itself, but a means to an end. You weed your garden so that the flowers you’ve planted won’t be choked by weeds nor their beauty hidden. Weeding is not an end in itself and the traditional Lenten disciplines are not an end in themselves, still less are they a means of somehow gaining God’s favor! For God does not need our prayer, fasting, and almsgiving; you and I do! Because through them we weed the garden of our souls so we can then bloom with the fruit of the Spirit: the “fruit” that is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control.
So how is it with you, with me, as we again begin our Lenten journey to Calvary’s cross and on to the Lord’s resurrection? Is it still winter— our hearts cold and hardened with apathy and indifference, resentment and bitterness, perhaps even a dose of despair? Is our practice of religion cold and formal, or is it the expression of a grateful heart warmed by love beyond understanding— the love of God who came down into our terror and torment and death to raise us up into His life and freedom and joy?
If it is still winter in our hearts, then the Lenten spring is here to bring us back to life: to warm our hearts with the ﬁre of Christ’s love and to revive our flagging spirits through the gentle dew of His mercy toward us sinners— sinners, who by our misuse of God’s gifts have made of God’s good world a veritable wasteland of sorrow and want; and who, by sinning against one another, in fact sin against the One who has called each one of us out of nothingness into being: God who is Love. It was St. Isaac the Syrian, a fourth century Bishop of Nineveh, who wrote:
Those who understand that they have sinned against love undergo greater sufferings than those produced by the most fearful tortures. The sorrow which takes hold of the heart which has sinned against love is more piercing than any other pain.
Well those are not just words of a Christian bishop who lived more than fifteen hundred years ago. I can truthfully say that they ring true to my own experience. And what a terrible thing it is to realize that I have sinned against someone who loves me very much. And that is true of every last one of us because each one of us has sinned against Love: the eternal Love who called us into being and then saved us from sin and death by His bitter passion and death. Yes, “the sorrow which takes hold of the heart which has sinned against love is more piercing than any other pain.”
Healing for that pain can only be found through the “tree” which Saint John, exiled on Patmos, saw in mystic vision: that “tree” which is the cross of Jesus, “the tree of life whose leaves were for the healing of the nations.” There alone do we find healing for the wounds of sin, balm for our troubled consciences, and peace through the precious blood of Jesus which cleanses and refreshes every sad and broken heart.
After a long and difficult winter, we welcome the coming of spring. Let us then welcome the coming of Lent, the “springtime of the soul.” In the words of the ancient liturgy:
The Lenten spring shines forth,
The flower of repentance…
Let us cast off the works of darkness,
Let us put on the armor of light,
that passing through Lent as through a great sea,
we may reach the third day resurrection of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Savior of our souls.
And the peace of God which passes all understanding keep your hearts and minds through Christ Jesus to life everlasting. +Amen.