Wednesday, March 05, 2014

Ash Wednesday 2014

Traditionally the season of Lent is encouraged as a time of prayer, fasting, spiritual reflection, and penitence - making our wrongs right as in "bearing fruit worthy of repentance" - all done in preparation for The Resurrection.  Like the seven days leading up to Yom Kippur (the Day of Atonement) in the Jewish tradition, it is a time not to be taken lightly by the faithful as if it has no significance or that simply going through the motions will satisfy some obscure "legal" requirement - like the "hypocrites" who are called out by Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount.

Though we may never attain a level of spiritual perfection in this mortal life, this does not mean we are not expected to reach higher as we strive to "go on to perfection" rather than settle for spiritual mediocrity.  It means we are given some latitude as we inevitably stumble and fall but refuse to stay down and resolve to do better with our Lord's help.  This is "sanctifying grace", intentional discipleship, as we become stronger day after day.  It is as necessary for the soul as exercise and food are for the body.

It occurred to me this past week, however, that maybe our focus should not be exclusively on our moral failings, our penitence, and how we can do better - although this is still necessary for honest inward reflection and self-evaluation.  But maybe it is time to shift our primary focus in such a way - a much more difficult way, I think - that we put some real time and thought and effort into what it means - what it really means - to be a Christian, a genuine disciple of Christ, beyond being simply a member of a church.  Frankly if we cannot do this for ourselves, we will find it impossible to articulate genuine, life-sustaining and life-altering faith to others, including our own children and grandchildren.  Let's face it; if we are not "ambassadors for Christ", we are only the "dust from which we came and to which we will return".

Is our faith defined by a particular code of ethics?  Certainly, but there is more.  Is our faith defined by that one clarifying moment of justification when we became aware that we have been forgiven of our past sins when we asked?  Not necessarily, because that "justifying grace" is our Holy Father's act of mercy.  Are we automatically Christians when we are baptized?  Well, frankly, no; because baptism is, as shown in John the Baptizer's life, a Jewish practice as well.

We can easily see the Lord has set forth certain things for us to know in the moral law which teaches us how to treat one another, how to "love our neighbor as ourselves" which clearly goes beyond a warm-and-fuzzy emotion we mistake for "love".  We should also understand "justifying grace" as the Lord's act of mercy.  This moment is clarified further, however, in how or whether we respond in a transformative and life-altering way.  And the difference between a brand-name "Christian" and a purposeful and intentional "follower of Christ" marked by a life of constant transformation and spiritual growth is defined and refined by the length and the depth and the breadth of our response to that mercy which is our calling. 

One of the greatest misunderstandings about Christianity is that we are defined strictly by a professed allegiance to Christ Jesus, our knowledge of a certain "creed".  There is that, of course, but there is so much more - much more.  There is discovery.  This is the exciting and sometimes downright scary part about "following" Jesus; I mean really going after the Holy Father through Christ in worship, in prayer, in fasting, in Scripture study, even in fellowship with one another - it is the discoveries we make along the way about ourselves, our neighbors, our God revealed in Christ, and our faith.

These "discoveries" involve constant life-changing decisions through which we struggle with our own intense personal desires against what we truly need to grow in faith and in love.  For instance, we often confuse material wealth with personal blessing so much so that we keep our wealth (and thus our blessings) to ourselves.  Or we do "this" when the Lord is clearly calling us to do "that". 

Like the rich young ruler in Luke 18:18-22, we often think simply obeying a list of "rules" or merely refraining from evil acts is enough; but even then we often excuse ourselves from "legalism" when we willfully disregard these "rules" - such as when we freely engage in the most common and damaging of offenses: neglect of our neighbors' needs, especially those we don't like or who are not like us.

It is easy to stumble, too easy, in fact.  This is one of the harshest lessons of life.  I submit to you, however, it is much more difficult to define and articulate our faith - and even more difficult to truly "follow" Jesus.  We are often more inclined to expect Jesus to follow us as we "reap and sow" to our flesh rather than to the spirit.  And this, dear friends, is the emphasis of Ash Wednesday which beckons us into the challenging and spiritually necessary journey that is Lent.

It is a clarifying moment when we are reminded in a tangible way of our true origin in the "dust of the earth"; when we are reminded there will come a day when our mortal bodies will give out - some sooner, some later.  This sounds a little gloomy and depressing, but we must not deny that death does not discriminate between young and old, rich and poor, black and white, insured and uninsured, faithful and not-so-faithful. 

So we are called and challenged to put away the things of the flesh, the things that may satisfy the body but do nothing for the soul - the soul, that Divine "breath of life" which calls us beyond our flesh and into communion with our Creator.  It is the annual "dose of humility" we need - to be reminded that apart from our Lord who spoke us into being and then breathed into us the breath of life, we are only slightly more evolved than apes - and when our mortal bodies die, so also do we - apart from the Lord our God who is revealed to us in Christ.

Let us remember that our genuine and holy purpose for being is always ahead of us, never behind us, as we are renewed by the mercy and spirit of the Lord our God. 


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