One of the hallmarks of the Episcopal Church – and Anglicanism in general – is the emphasis we place on the public reading of Scripture in the context of corporate and liturgical prayer. Some traditions have put more emphasis on the personal reading of Scripture. Others stress Bible study done in small groups. And we’re certainly not opposed to such use of the Bible! In fact, we could probably use a lot more of those things. And in fact one of things we’re invited to do in Lent is to engage in “reading and meditating on God’s holy Word.”
But our strong suit has been on the daily public reading of Scripture in community. So in this chapel and in many other congregations and cathedrals and seminaries and monastic communities we schedule the Daily Office of Morning Prayer to be prayed in church, in community, day in and day out. By our observance of the church seasons and the major and minor feast days, we read yet more Scripture in the context of the Holy Eucharist. And it’s in this rich interplay between prayer and the Bible that we believe we most effectively can “hear what the Spirit is saying to God’s people.”
The Liturgy for Ash Wednesday gives us an excellent example of this interplay between prayer and the Bible, between the liturgy and the Scriptures. The Lenten Invitation tells us “what to do” to observe this Holy Season. Today’s Gospel tells us “how to do it.”
After a brief summary of the history of Lent, the invitation is extended: “I invite you, therefore, in the name of the Church, to the observance of a holy Lent, by self-examination and repentance; by prayer, fasting and self-denial; and by reading and meditating on God’s holy Word.
So, our first Lenten discipline is “self examination and repentance.” This is a season to spend some time looking into our own hearts and souls and minds. And, when we discover things there which may wound the heart of God, to repent – to turn around and go in a new direction, to start over again. But Jesus, in the Gospel according to St. Matthew, cautions us, “Beware of practicing your piety before others, in order to be seen by them; for then you have no reward from your Father in heaven.”
In other words, our self examination and repentance is to be done privately, in the silence of our own hearts – not publicly, to impress others. The Church encourages us – especially in Lent — to take advantage of the sacrament of reconciliation or confession, but even there we unburden our souls to God in the presence of a priest…but quietly and anonymously, not in order to impress someone else.
Secondly, we’re to observe the season of Lent by giving renewed attention to prayer. But Jesus says, “…whenever you pray, do not be like the hypocrites; for they love to stand and pray in the synagogues and at the street corners, so that they may be seen by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward. But whenever you pray, go into your room and shut the door and pray to your Father in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you.”
That doesn’t mean we should never come to church or engage in liturgical prayer, but it does mean that our deepest and most intense periods of communion with God in prayer may well come in the silence and solitude of our own “monastic cells” wherever they may be… our own prayer corners or places of solitude. And again the caution is never to make a show of our worship or our prayers to impress others.
Next, fasting. That means simplifying our lives by giving up something in solidarity perhaps with the poor of this world who have so very much less than we do. But “…whenever you fast,” Jesus reminds us, “do not look dismal, like the hypocrites, for they disfigure their faces so as to show others that they are fasting. Truly I tell you they have received their reward. But when you fast, put oil on your head and wash your face, so that your fasting may be seen not by others but by your Father who is in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you.”
This has little or nothing to do with our custom of marking our foreheads with a cross of ashes on this day, but the self-serving, prideful posture of the pharisees among us who want everyone to know just how strict they are…and how hard they are trying to please God! I’ve often said that, if you think you will wear the cross of ashes with a sense of pride, you should wash your face before you ever leave the church. If you are just a bit embarrassed to be marked with the sign of Christ’s cross in this way, you should most certainly wear them all day long – and maybe even to bed, as a spiritual discipline!
Finally, the Church invites us to self-denial. This is not some masochistic, self flagellation but a discipline of knowing how to say “No” to yourself in some little things so that you will have the strength to say “No” to yourself when it really matters! A way to link fasting and self-denial is to estimate the amount of money you save by your fast and give the money to the poor.
And again, Jesus says, “…whenever you give alms, do not sound a trumpet before you, as the hypocrites do…so that they maybe praised by others. Truly I tell you they have received their reward. But when you give alms, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, so that your alms may be done in secret, and your Father who sees in secret will reward you.”
So, these are our marching orders for Lent, dear friends – “what we are to do.” Let’s just be sure that we pay equal attention to “how” we carry them out. In the final analysis…that’s all Jesus really cares about anyway!