Ash Wednesday – A Call to Observe a Holy Lent

Do not think that saintliness comes from occupation; it depends rather on what one is. The kind of work we do does not make us holy, but we may make it holy.
     ~Meister Eckhart (1260-1329)

Today begins a 40-day journey. A journey into Lent. A deep expedition into the life of the soul. I pray that you find comfort that the church gifts us with this season of Lent, and may be bold enough to count those blessings over the course of these 40 days. What are some of the blessings that this saintly season allows?

The first blessing is that today is not a feast day, but one of fasting. This is a rarity in our tradition given that the prayer book only names 2 days – Ash Wednesday and Good Friday (BCP 17) – as times to make fasting a priority. Put differently, because fast days are such a rarity, we should pay attention to what a day like today truly reveals. Again, I claim it anticipates blessing for today, the church grants us permission to un-plug. To experience…to dig down and really see the world around us. Maybe today you will begin fasting from consumerism or television, social media, or tobacco. Will you be giving up meat on Fridays, or resisting chocolate on Mondays? No matter what your self-discipline will be, try to understand that abstinence and fasting are helpful for recalling us back to God, and can serve as specific practices that allow us to stand in solidarity with those who are in need. For example, when you are hungry today, remember and pray for those who are chronically hungry. If you are trying to live more simply, live simply so that the least of these may simply live. Remember not only your flesh-and-blood neighbors, but also your neighbor trees, flowers, forests, and fields asking such questions as: How do I love all of God’s creation? As well as, “How do I neglect these creations?” Finally, remember Lent allows us to pray for God’s creation and our neighbors but also gives us space to serve them in specific ways too.

The second blessing of Lent is that it allows for routine. We all have routines upon waking, sleeping, and everything in between, but Lent reminds us that our daily schedules can be grounded in an intentional life of prayer. Take these 40 days to experiment with a regular routine of prayer. Specifically, and with intention, divide your day up into times for prayer and meditation. Eat your meals with friends or family. Take time to labor and live into your vocations, but also find the time for learning and rest. When was the last time you truly went on retreat? When was the last time you took up something new simply for the joy of learning something new? Remembering afresh the ways in which we order our lives will harness that extra sense in which God also has his own ways-and-means in which God orders, guides, and directs our souls.

The third blessing of Lent is that we are obligated to confess our sins to God and our neighbor more frequently. We confess, not to be condemned, but to be forgiven. When we are forgiven, we are reminded of the peace of Christ. Forgiveness is a gift for it lifts up our heavy hearts allowing them to praise God, and to be in thanksgiving, honoring and adoring the One who grants us forgiveness of our sins. At once, confession gives us access to God’s judgment as well as his mercy. There is no season in the church calendar that emphasizes the graces of confession more than in the season of Lent.

Finally, Lent allows for further conversion of spirit. When we convert to something, we stop doing what we’re doing. We turn from it and pursue something altogether different. Conversion doesn’t necessarily mean we turn from something bad to something good. More times than not conversion happens when we turn from something good to something better. During this season of Lent, I invite you to start paying attention to your choices choosing the greater one that helps you live into the person you desire to be while acknowledging God’s graces that are there to assist you.

To sum up, Lent is a time of fasting, and a time of reflection on one’s routine in life. Lent is also a time of confession and ongoing conversion. Given all these blessed realities of this season, take the time to do them and if you cannot commit to all of them this year, choose one and work with God on how you will live into your fasting, routine, confession, or further conversion. Be brave this Lent. Experiment with the tools the church offers. Live out your faith comparing your relationship with God since this time last season. Are you growing stronger in the faith? Is there a greater sense of hope in your life? Are you walking in love more fully and with each passing day? Get curious about these virtuous things, and with intention (along with God’s help), observe a time of Holy Lent.

This New Year Recall the Light of Christ in Your Life

The Prayer Book defines 7 “principal kinds of prayer” being adoration, praise, thanksgiving, penitence, oblation, intercession, and petition (BCP, 856). These are all defined on page 857; however, there are two – thanksgiving and penitence – which I would like to focus on as we approach the New Year.

For 4 weeks, the Season of Advent gifted us with John the Baptist’s invitation to repent in order to prepare our hearts for the light of Christ coming into the world at Christmas. Christmas is a season of thanksgiving as we stand thankful for the gift of light within our lives being called (like John) to witness to this light (Jn 1:7,8). This act of thanksgiving is symbolized on Christmas morning when someone gives you a gift to open. You open it; thus acknowledging the gift. Then you thank the person for the gift by actually using the gift – be it a toy, or something practical, or monetary. Again, you use the gift that has been given to you.

Taking these two prayers, thanksgiving and penitence, and thinking about the closing out of one year and the opening up of another, let us recollect, counting our many blessings naming them one by one through prayers of thanksgiving, as well as acknowledging and confessing sin in our lives – not to be condemned, but to be forgiven. This is a great way to not only end a year, but to also live into the next one with grace, mercy, and integrity.

God Moments
When a God Moment occurs, we usually tell somebody about them, or we serve Christ in tangible ways because of all our recognizable moments with God. We are like John the Baptist “testifying to the light” when we participate in these God Moments. Prayers of repentance as well as thanksgiving help to recall those God Moments in our lives, and the church has gifted us with spiritual tools to help recollect both our sins and our thanksgivings. It’s important to balance confession with thanksgiving. Only confessing sin leaves us dull, and boarders on obsessiveness and morbidity. On the other hand, continually thanking God without confessing sin puts us out of touch with the reality of sin, and ignores real problems within our own lives, the lives of others, and even the life of our planet. Having balance with these two types of prayers is a sign of Christian maturity, and spiritual longevity.

Self-Examination & Confession
When there is a God Moment that convicts you of a sin, or sins, in your life this is the Holy Spirit prompting you to pray. Tradition calls this movement of the Spirit, self-examination. We examine our lives in the light of God’s mercy and love, while seeking forgiveness for those thoughts, words, and deeds done and left undone where we fell short. There are multiple manuals within the tradition of Christianity that have helped countless Christians recall and confess their sins. I want to look at 2 of them in the English/Anglican/Episcopal Tradition: The Bible and The Book of Common Prayer.

The Bible
One way to examine our lives is to put it up against Judeo-Christian practices, specifically the moral and aesthetical practices found within the Bible. Within the Old Testament, we could turn to the Decalogue, or The 10 Commandments, meditating on them and observing where we are convicted of sin. From the New Testament, we might consider reading and meditating on the Beatitudes found in Matthew’s Gospel or when Jesus summed up the law. Let’s take this last one (Jesus Summing up the Law) and treat it as an example of self-examination. Jesus said,

“Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy mind.” This is the first and great commandment. And the second is like unto it: Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself” (Matt. 22:37-39).

During self-examination we might get curious as to how we understand and experience love within our lives (“Thou shalt love”), and how our love extends from our self, to those around us, including God. Reversing this, we might ask how we believe God extends his love to us, those around us, and in fact, to all God’s creation. This love extends out through our “hearts,” “souls,” and “minds.” This gives us pause as we can now recollect the awesome power of God’s love, and where we fall short giving expression of this love to ourselves, neighbors, and the world. What starts out as a broad meditation on God’s love and the feeling of falling short can now turn into specifics: “I didn’t love God with my mind when I…” “I neglected my neighbor just yesterday when I…” Being specific is important when confessing sin, and reveals to God your desire to be forgiven.

The Prayer Book
Self-examination in the prayer book is best expressed in the liturgical Rite of Baptism. Here, we are reminded of our Baptismal Promises made, or someone made on our behalf at our baptism, if one was baptized as an infant or young child. These promises are on page 304-305. Another resource is St. Augustine’s Prayer Book. In it are specific questions for self-examination using the traditional “7 Deadly Sins.” Once a Christian has practiced self-examination using the Bible and the prayer book for a while, and desires to go deeper, this is an excellent resource for doing so. Getting back to the Prayer Book, once sins have been recollected, there are three ways to seek absolution and forgiveness in the Episcopal Tradition. The first is to confess your sins directly to God in private asking for forgiveness, then praying a prayer of Thanksgiving for the forgiveness of sins. Psalm 51 is a classic Psalm of thanksgiving for forgiveness of sins. There are other Psalms that you may wish to say with your own words of thanksgiving as well. The second way is during the General Confession either during Holy Eucharist, or within the Daily Office (morning and evening prayers). The last is a Rite in the Prayer Book called, Reconciliation of a Penitent (BCP, 447). This is confession to God with a priest being present to absolve the penitent through his priestly ministry of absolution. Confession to a priest isn’t in vogue like it used to be; however, this sacramental rite of the church is always available. Persons who use this office of the church today are usually wondering if God truly forgave them, and desire some tangible closure. This isn’t always the case of course as many Christians find confession beneficial at certain seasons of the Church, or at regular times in the calendar where confession to God through the priest is particular important and necessary for further spiritual growth and maturity. Traditional times of self-examination and confession during the liturgical year are during the seasons of Advent and Lent.

Thanksgivings 
Leaving confession and going over to Thanksgiving: Here you Count your blessings. Naming them one-by-one. A sense of gratefulness and thankfulness can suddenly wash over us as we recollect the many wonders of life and being. When this happens we can pause, taking it all in, and simply say, “Thank You.” When we want to be more specific, a great resource found within the Prayer Book is the Thanksgiving section found on page 836 and 837. This section is divided into A General Thanksgiving and A Litany of Thanksgiving. I’ve taken both of these and put them in question format for better recollection and self-examination. Once the questions have been answered, a proper way of closing out the recollection is to simply pray one of the two prayers. This can be done by yourself, in a small group, or within your family as a wonderful way of thanking God for the many blessings of life and light in our lives now as well as thinking upon this past year. The questions are below. Choose as many or as little as you with. I hope you find them helpful; then, using the Prayer Book, either use one of the prayers of thanksgiving on page 836 and 837, or gather up all your thanksgivings and pray The Lord’s Prayer.

God’s creation is beautiful. Where did you seek out beauty and find it this year?

Where did you remember the mystery of love this year? Who helped you remember?

How were you blessed by family? by friends? How were you cared for? How were you caring?

We can be thankful for our disappointments and failures if we faithfully believe that these missteps can lead us to acknowledge our dependence on God. How was this true for you?

 Choose a Gospel story were Jesus is teaching, healing, suffering, being tempted, questioning, being obedient, dying, etc. Place yourself into the story. What do you believe God is showing you today?

 What do you know about Jesus? How do you know him and/or experience him in your own life?

 What gifts did you receive this year? Could any of these gifts be used to “give back” to God?

 Did you travel somewhere beautiful this year? If so, describe it to God.

 Do you pray to God thanking him for the food and drink you are blessed to have, shelter over your head, and friends that support you along the way? Thank God for these now.

 Where did you use your God-given intellect this year? How did it help you or someone else? Did you know thinking critically is a gift?

 How did you serve Christ in “the neighbor, the stranger, the widow, the orphan, the poor, the lonely” this year? How did they serve you?

 Work gives humanity dignity and respect. Are you satisfied with the work you did this year? Will you remain in this work next year, or are you discerning “a new calling?”

 Where did you take the time to make good use of leisure, rest, and play? Do you have tangible plans for these important things in the coming year?

 How are you brave and courageous? Who is your example – either living or past?

 When you suffer or are experiencing adversity, are you patient? Do you experience God’s presence in these times?

 How do you seek after truth, liberty, and justice? How are these Godly attributes lived out in your life?

 Who is your favorite saint, and why?

Conclusion
As we set aside 2018 looking toward 2019 may these two types of prayer – penitence and thanksgiving – give you pause in your life to recall, recollect, and examine your lives in the light of Christ’s glory and grace.

God bless you, and Happy New Year!