Christ House held an Ash Wednesday service attended by patients, Kairos members, volunteers, and staff. We were challenged and inspired by a meditation delivered by the Rev. Lizzie Bebber and would like to share it with you.
Each year, we arrive at the season of Lent with a halt. Just a few short weeks ago, we anticipated Jesus’ birth, celebrated his arrival and witnessed his baptism in the Jordan River by his cousin John. In many ways, we’ve been feasting on wonder and joy and would like to stay there rather than move forward. However, we must continue walking, remembering that there’s a whole story to be heard and lived into. It’s in fact the most important part of Jesus’ story of coming into this world in human flesh and in order to get there, we can’t stay where we’ve been.
In our gospel lesson (Matthew 6.1-6, 16-18), Jesus speaks to the core of being his disciple with regard to our desires and motivations in following him. He’s speaking here to a primarily Jewish audience who are familiar with what practices are seen as more holy and righteous than others. Jesus hones in on three of these and while emphasizing their importance, he calls out the temptation to use them for personal attention and gain. For Jesus, each of these practices must point to a more inward journey of life. We may be tempted to make them more outwardly known for the sake of being noticed or personal gain, but to truly get to the heart of their purposes, we must go to a deeper place– a place that is real and authentic in our faith.
For starters, Jesus says that giving to others is always a good idea, but never one where we should sound the alarm, wave a red flag and point back to ourselves so that everyone else knows we’re giving. Instead, we should posture ourselves with a generous spirit and allow that spirit to help us to let go of the tight grasp we have on our belongings and share what we have with others.
He then speaks to those who use prayer in public spaces to bring attention to themselves. Instead, we should go into our closets, close the door and pray. I don’t think Jesus is completely rebuking public prayer here but instead challenging the question of why we pray and how we pray. Do we pray because we know others are listening? Or do we pray because we know God is listening? Prayer calls us to a deeper inner life and establishes communion with God, because in doing so we experience God’s presence.
Lastly, he speaks to fasting. This may be a practice that we aren’t as familiar with but is one that can certainly be powerful. Fasting can be food related or a withholding in other areas of our life. Some people give up coffee or chocolate or tv when they fast. And while it’s a nice excuse to diet from various things, the point again must go deeper. When I take something out of my life, what am I replacing it with? Jesus says don’t fast in order to draw attention to yourself, shining the light on your struggle and suffering. Rather, keep it to yourself and trust that God will fill the spaces that you’ve opened up.
I think that Jesus calls out these three areas because they each require us to go beyond ourselves in thinking and in practice. When we approach them as they are intended, there’s not much self-gratification that we can manufacture. Quite honestly, most of these practices are challenging. Giving some of what we have to others, spending time in prayer versus doing other things and not allowing ourselves to be satisfied by some of the very things that give our lives sustenance isn’t for the weak. However, instead of constantly thinking of ourselves and our unmet needs and wants, we turn our focus to God, our need for Him and our desire to be in relationship together.
Sister Joan Chittister writes this about Lent: “Lent is the opportunity to change what we ought to change but have not…Lent is about becoming, doing and changing whatever it is that is blocking the fullness of life in us right now… Lent is a summons to live anew…Lent is the time to let life in again, to rebuild the worlds we’ve allowed to go sterile, to “fast and weep and mourn” for the goods we’ve foregone. If our own lives are not to die from lack of nourishment, we must sacrifice the pride or the sloth or the listlessness that blocks us from beginning again. Then, as (the prophet) Joel (2:12-18) promises, God will have pity on us and pour into our hearts the life we know down deep that we are lacking.”
God will pour into our hearts the life we know down deep that we are lacking. Does that resonate with you? It does with me, because I know the truth underneath it. Are there parts of your life that are lacking? That you’ve covered up for one reason or another? Or maybe you’re holding on to them for fear of letting go and giving God permission to enter into and embrace? That’s what Lent is about! Yes, it’s about the sacrifice and withholding and even experiencing what some would call suffering, as we walk towards Jesus’ crucifixion. And it’s also about making space for God. Making space for God to enter into places of our lives that are dusty, covered in cobwebs and maybe even boarded up from years and years of self protection and hiding.
What is it within you that needs to experience the fullness of God? What is keeping you from experiencing that life giving fulfillment?
In a few minutes, we will take Holy Communion and then have the opportunity to receive the imposition of ashes. Allow each of these practices to draw you into a posture of repentance and self-denial, thus bringing you closer to God, into a deeper dependence on God. Open yourself to a new start today, as we begin the 40 day journey towards Easter, letting go of old ways of living and seeking to align our will with that of God’s best for our lives. In doing so, may we allow ourselves to be purged of the desires that aren’t aligned with God’s will. May we be freed from those desires and may that freedom, through Christ, bring its own reward.
On this new day, may we begin the Lenten journey towards Jesus’ crucified body on the cross with a deeper desire and more heartfelt motivation to serve, to be in relationship and to offer ourselves and our gifts to God and to others.
Come, Lord Jesus, come.