Wednesday, February 6, 2008

Echoes of Our Faith

Echoes of Our Faith

Ash Wednesday presents us with what one might call “echoes of our faith.” It began the Last Sunday after the Epiphany actually. In the story of our Lord’s Transfiguration, we heard a voice from heaven say, “This is my son, my beloved, with whom I am well pleased. Listen to him.” This echoes the voice heard back at our Lord’s baptism, “You are my beloved with whom I am well pleased.”

These echoes remind us of the very core of the Good News of God in Christ: that for all of us, when we are baptized into the Body of Christ, there is a voice that says, “You are my beloved. I am well pleased with you.” Jesus dedicated his life, death and resurrection to proclaiming this Good News.

There are similar echoes in the Ashes of Ash Wednesday – a reminder that we are but dust and to dust we shall return. But this is no ordinary dust. It is not the kind of dust you go out and get a can of pledge and wipe down the whole house! This dust we hear about echoes the story in Genesis when God picks up a handful of dust, breathes into it and gives life to the first person. It is an intimate moment between God and man. Our very breath comes from God – another reminder of just how beloved we are.

Then there are the palms from which the ashes come. Each year I take them out to the backyard where I have developed a ritual with my Webber grill. There is nothing to describe the intensity of the white-hot flame that comes from burning palms. One cannot do this in a soup pot or you will never use that soup pot again. It will be permanently damaged by heat and resins! A friend of mine, Tom Talley, did this in his sacristy on the counter and it fused the bottom of the pot to the Formica counter top! The flame is white-hot, vehement, powerful and awesome.

These palms carry some contradictory symbolism. On one hand, a sign of what is called Jesus’ Triumphal Entry to Jerusalem. On the other hand the palms lead directly to Good Friday and the cross. The cross is a sign of God’s love for us, as strange as that seems to those beyond the community of faith. And the intensity with which the palms burn is reminiscent of those words about God’s love for God’s people in the Song of Solomon, “Its flashes are flashes of fire, a most vehement flame. Many waters cannot quench love; neither can the floods drown it.”

So the liturgy of Ash Wednesday is filled with echoes of our faith and signs of our belovedness in the eyes of God. A God, we are told by the prophet Joel, who would come into the sanctuary and leave an offering on our behalf if we were unable to make the offering ourselves! What a God!

Yet, Ash Wednesday also means to recognize that there are lots of things that get in the way of our accepting our belovedness – lots of things that distract us from understanding ourselves as God’s beloved. There are a lot of things that get between us and God’s love.

Some of these used to be called the Seven Deadly Sins. They almost sound quaint today. As a sign of just how strange the world has become, many of them these days are touted as virtues – Greed, Lust, Gluttony, Envy, Pride, Sloth, Anger (Wrath). Pride, Lust and Greed (not to mention Anger!) lead a list of modern culture virtues, and all but dominate the presidential primary scene and even the election for a new bishop in the Diocese of Maryland.

Our Litany of Penitence covers pretty much all the territory of those behaviors that separate us from each other and from the love of God. It lists the multitude of ways we get distracted from our belovedness, and seeing that belovedness in others. Ash Wednesday, then, is a day to begin to Repent – which means to turn around. The idea is we are no longer going in the Way of the Lord, but rather in our own way or in distracted ways. We have forty days to do this turning. It does not happen overnight.

This leads us to the spiritual disciplines of Lent – tithing, self-examination, prayer, fasting, and reading and meditating upon God’s word. Jesus calls us to enter into these disciplines with a spirit and attitude of humility – again, a virtue almost lacking in the midst of our popular and political culture. We are promised, as we prayed at the outset, that God hates nothing and no one God has made, and seeks to accept our repentance and forgive us all our sins. For our God is the Lord who is “gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love;” the same Lord “whose property is always to have mercy.”

Ash Wednesday is a time to listen for the echoes of our faith, in which we hear about a God who forms us from dust and breath, whose love for us is a vehement flame, who endured the cross that we might have eternal life. As we hear and even feel those echoes reverberate through our very souls, we begin the process of turning, repentance, and applying ourselves to those spiritual disciplines that mean to remind us of who we are and whose we are. We are the Lord’s. May we remember that it is only by God’s gracious gift that we are given everlasting life.


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