On 1 March, Ash Wednesday, Helene Milena preached the following sermon in the Anglican Cathedral on Epiphany Island in Second Life. The readings were Joel 2.1-2, 12-17, Psalm 51:1-18, Matthew 6:1-6, 16-21.
The Ash Wednesday liturgy we are using, taken from the Church of England resources, is rich in content. There is barely any need of a reflection if you pay attention to the words of the liturgy. I will therefore confine myself to a few words which highlight what Lent is about, to remind those who are familiar with the season and to inform those who aren’t.
Lent is a time of preparation for Easter. To go straight to Easter without preparation is rather like seeing the view from the mountaintop without climbing the mountain. That can be done where trains or cable cars take people to the top but there is something missing from the experience if you have not got there by making some effort.
Lent is a time to consider just why Easter is part of the Christian story at all. By focusing on our own mortality and sin, we see clearly that only God is able to save and restore us, which he did through the death and resurrection of Jesus. This is the supreme act of God’s grace, to do for us what we could never do for ourselves.
Lent (which comes from the Anglo-Saxon word for Spring, when the days lengthen) is a period of 40 days, beginning today on Ash Wednesday and ending on Easter Eve. For those who are interested in the arithmetic, the Sundays of this period are not counted as part of Lent. They are little celebrations in anticipation of the great celebration of Easter.
The tradition of Lent began in the early church. Those who were preparing to be baptised, sometimes spending three years in this preparation, spent 40 days before Easter examining themselves and being examined by the leaders of the church to see if they were ready for baptism. It was also a time for those alienated from the Christian community to be restored through penitence and forgiveness. By the fourth century, all Christians entered into this time of self-examination with the baptism candidates. It is usual to renew baptism promises at the end of the period.
Ash Wednesday has confession of sins as its major focus. Unlike the brief confession we have every Sunday, there is a long act of penitence. We have an opportunity to remember what sin is and how it entered the world. Sin was initially disobedience to God when Adam and Eve went their own way. As a result of that, God told them that they would die and return to the dust from which they were formed, words we remember as we receive the cross on our foreheads today. Sin in biblical terms is anything that harms the community – missing the mark, doing evil, crossing boundaries in behaviour, rebelling against God. We harm ourselves and our relationships by sin and so harm those around us. Repentance means turning towards healthy behaviour that is good for us and for everyone else.
In the introduction to this service we are instructed in what is traditionally considered to be a holy Lent. First is self-examination and repentance. That is what this Ash Wednesday service gives us an opportunity to do. However, we have the rest of the 40 days to consider. The traditional practices passed down the ages from the saints who have gone before us are: “prayer, fasting, and self-denial; and by reading and meditating on God’s Holy Word.”
Prayer has its communal aspect such as now, when we come together to recognise ourselves as brothers and sisters who face the same struggles in life as one another and to support one another in those struggles. It also has its private aspect, when we spend time in God’s presence by ourselves, learning to relate to our heavenly Father. It’s not just important that we pray; it’s important how we pray. Jesus makes it plain that our prayer should not be something we show off about, expecting to be admired for what we do, but should be quiet and private.
Fasting is a form of self-denial that has come back into focus in recent years. Many find it helpful to abstain from certain foods and focus on God. Once again, as Jesus makes clear, we are not to fast in order to make a spectacle of ourselves. We are to choose the discipline we will follow and keep that to ourselves as much as possible.
Another form of self-denial often practised in Lent is increased giving. That may be extra money given to charities. It may be the giving of time to help with some worthy cause – perhaps in a food bank or a charity shop or whatever good work is done in our local areas. Again, Jesus admonishes us not to tell everyone what we have done. We are to be so quiet about it that even our left hand will not be aware that our right hand is in the process of giving!
And so, being careful not to practise our piety before others, seeking their approval and admiration, but directing our attention towards God, we who are gathered here are setting out on our journey through Lent. We are travelling a well-worn path, made holy by the feet of many saints over the centuries. Our destination initially is to Easter Day 2017. Ultimately, like theirs, it’s towards our own resurrection, made possible by the grace of God demonstrated in Christ dying for us and rising again.
Helene Milena – Lay Pastor