Dear Brothers and Sisters at St. Paul’s,
Lent is here this month. It is an important season in the life of the Church, and it gets a lot of attention because of its traditions and practices. It’s often thought of as a time to ‘give something up’ or to take on some kind of abstinence, so as to have more time and attention to focus on spiritual things. For some, it’s a time of taking on extra disciplines, like praying more often, or doing more charitable giving. I wonder if Lent is so acknowledged by popular culture for the simple reason that we Christians are a little more likely to talk about our faith or our religious practices with others during this time. “Would you like some chocolate cake?” “No thanks, I’d better not, it’s Lent, after all…” Lent does indeed have a tradition of increasing spiritual disciplines, but it’s important to remember that these are not goals to make in and of themselves. Lent is primarily a time of preparation. Our disciplines of doing more altruistic things and fewer hedonistic things are meant to help get our hearts and minds ready so that we can see the miracles of Holy Week and Easter when they are set before us, and to recognize them as clearly as possible in the way that they present
themselves to us.
Lent begins with Ash Wednesday, and its marking of penitent people with a sign that acknowledges our common mortality. The ashes are a reminder that time is short, and that if we want to get the most out of our pilgrimage, NOW is the time to start taking it more seriously. Sometimes the ashes are worn as a sign of religiousity. It seems like some people wear them around in order to say, ‘Hey, check this out! I went to Church!” But Jesus warns against this mindset. The ashes aren’t important because they label us as Christians, or as devout people, but because when we see them all around us on other people, it is a powerful witness to the truth: that we are all in this together, and that Divine Love and forgiveness are the only real hope we have. Ashes are a mark of something that used to be that has now gone away, but what made the ashes remains–a burning heat that separates truth from fiction, wheat from chaffe. Maybe you’ve felt that heat in your heart, that wants to burn up injustice, or that shines brightly when you give
selflessly to another.
Lots of people know about Lent and Ash Wednesday. But in the days right after Ash Wednesday there are some somewhat lesser known days on the Church Calendar. They’re called ‘Ember Days’. They don’t occur just in Lent, but the Lenten ones are particularly important. They are days of prayer for a renewal of ministry, for inspiration, and for the power of the Holy Spirit to form us each for our various ministries. The idea of calling them Ember Days is that you stoke up the embers and blow the ash away in order to get a fire going again. At the start of Lent this year, this seems like a particularly appropriate devotion. Blow the ashes away, so that plenty of fresh air can get it; stoke the embers so that the sources of heat and light can come together and work better and more closely. Let the fire rise up, giving light and warmth in a cold and wintery world. Then by that light, and warmed with each other’s closeness, we will see the miracle of Easter with a new clarity. I, for one, can’t wait.
Your servant In Christ,