The Rev. Borden Painter
Lent 3 C
28 February 2016
Grace Episcopal Church
On Ash Wednesday I saw an interesting story on the local news. The TV reporter interviewed a woman standing in front of a beautiful, quintessentially New England Congregational Church, all white with a soaring spire. The interviewee was a parishioner who was imposing ashes on foreheads for anyone walking or driving by. I was struck about how eloquently she spoke of the symbolism of the Imposition of Ashes.
It also occurred to me that her Puritan forebears were no doubt turning over in their graves. After all, the Puritans came here in the 17th century to escape the Church of England with such dregs of “Popery” as The Book of Common Prayer, traditional vestments, the church seasons and holidays (no Christmas for example) and making the sign of the cross in baptism. You can bet those Puritans would have nothing to do with Ash Wednesday let alone marking black crosses on foreheads.
I mention this not in the spirit of “I told you so,” but as a reminder of how powerful the seasons and symbols of the church are. Not surprising really that Calvinist and Puritan Christians have over the years rediscovered them. There is something very human about observing special days, be they public or personal: birthdays, anniversaries, special seasons. All days are not equal! Sundays are to celebrate the Day of the Resurrection; every Sunday is a “little Easter,” a festive occasion even in Lent. We use the church year to go through a cycle of Biblical readings that mark the life of Christ and our lives as disciples of His.
Here we are again in the midst of Lent: the forty days of purple that call us to reflection and repentance. The Ash Wednesday liturgy reminded us that “the first Christian observed with great devotion the days of our Lord’s passion and resurrection, and it became the custom of the Church to prepare for them by a season of penitence and fasting.” It was a time to prepare converts for Baptism and for the rest of us to seek reconciliation by penitence and forgiveness; to observe Lent through self-examination and repentance by “prayer, fasting and self-denial, by reading and meditating on God’s Holy Word.”
From the earliest days of the Church, this season of Lent provided a special time characterized by a tone of sobriety. It is a somber season, but not a sad season. We are not called to wear long, unhappy faces, but Lent offers us a welcome opportunity to reorder our priorities, to set ourselves back on the right path, to adjust our attitude toward God and neighbor, to be more disciplined in our lives as disciples. Yes, being faithful in worshipping with the community, more attentive to daily prayer and in prayers for others, both giving up and taking on things that may be seen as something like an athlete in training.
It is a good time to recognize temptations that so easily distract us, divert us from the Christian path. Jesus faced temptations: the temptation to dazzle people with great miracles like turning stone to bread or hurling himself from the pinnacle of the temple or assuming political power. But that was not the direction he would take in life. His path would take him to the cross. Yet that was not the end of the story as the day of Resurrection, Easter, demonstrated God’s power to overcome our two greatest enemies: sin and death.
When it comes down to what is most basic about Lent, for me it is the word DIRECTION that best sums it up. It is about where I am going in life. One of my favorite stories is about the great Supreme Court Justice, Oliver Wendell Holmes. Holmes was getting on in years and was traveling on the railroad here in New England. When the conductor came to take the tickets, Holmes fished around in his pockets, but could not find his. He became increasingly agitated, whereupon the conductor, recognizing the great man, said, “Mr. Holmes do not worry. I’m sure that when you get home you will find your ticket and you can send it to the railroad.” Holmes exploded, “My good man, the question is not where is my ticket? The question is, “Where am I going?”
That’s a good Lenten question: Where am I going? Where are we going? One of the most precious gifts in life is to have a sense of direction and purpose. Much of it we get from our membership in communities: the family, the school, the neighborhood, the nation, the church. We work with and through others for common goals. We go beyond ourselves to join with others for larger purposes than ourselves.
One of the saddest things in life is to experience, or to see others experience, a sense of aimlessness, emptiness — a kind of wandering around without any sense of goals, purpose, direction or meaning.
Sadly such aimlessness is widespread in our society. There are all sorts of goods, goodies, and pleasures that promise to fulfill us, to make us feel successful and happy, but which often turn out to be shallow, hollow, banal, aimless. But contrast that sense of aimless wandering with the sense of direction we hear during Lent. God promises to make Abraham the leader of a great people who will no longer wander but find a homeland. Today God calls Moses in the burning bush to lead his people from the oppression of Pharoah to a new land, a promised land. Paul assures us that wherever we are in life, whatever temptations we face, God is with us. God is faithful, and God will strengthen us in our journey on the right path.
In the Gospel, Jesus calls us to repent, meaning to turn around and face God, to come back, to get a new sense of direction from this God of the Bible who refuses to let us wander off. The Bible is less about our search for God that God’s search for us!
These Lenten themes are, of course, good all year around. But as even the Puritans eventually discovered, there is a lot to be said for having special times of the year when we emphasize central truths of our faith . And the truth is all Christians—Episcopalians, Congregationalists, Roman Catholics, all of us — need to answer that question: Where are we going?
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