Preached by Brenda Holden on 6 March 2019: Ash Wednesday
Isaiah 58:1-12, Matt 6:1-6, 16-21
We are all familiar with the need for an annual service for our cars and our central heating boilers if we have them. The annual service ensures that these items run smoothly, efficiently and safely. Lent is an opportunity for us to perform and annual service on our bodies and spirits and today, Ash Wednesday is the start of Lent it can be the start of our programme to get our lives back into a good running order.
The word Lent is from an Old English word for spring and this year with Easter on 21 April we are already in springtime. The next 40 days from Ash Wednesday to Good Friday, not including the Sundays, we remember the time that Jesus fasted in the wilderness and how he learnt to resist the temptations of the world, the flesh and the devil.
In former times, before the industrial revolution, spring was a time when fresh food was in short supply. The cupboards that had been stocked by the previous year’s harvest were becoming bare. It made sense for the Church to use these weeks to encourage fasting and to link the bodily fast with a time of spiritual self-discipline in preparation for the celebrations of Easter. In those days the annual servicing of the members of the congregations through fasting and prayer fitted very neatly with the availability of resources.
Fasting and spiritual self-discipline do not fit as neatly into our present situation. Some people choose to abstain from luxuries like chocolate for Lent. My father’s mother had a good take on that one. She indulged herself with chocolate on Sunday afternoons having been to church in the morning because, as she said, Sundays are not part of Lent. She probably ate more chocolate on that one afternoon than she would normally have had in a whole week!
We now live in a part of the world where we have food in abundance. We are overwhelmed with choice and we expect all varieties of foods to be available matter what the season. What we have enjoyed may change if there are problems in trading with foreign countries and hold-ups at ports in the future.
The over-abundance of food has seriously impacted on the health and well-being of our population and those in other prosperous countries of the world. Our nation was probably its fittest in a bodily sense when there was rationing during and after the last war. When we observe the weekly rations allowed to families it was a form of fasting for every week of the year.
Today, we need more than ever an ‘annual service’ of our bodies and our spirits. In many ways it is less about restraining from luxurious indulgences and more about looking for ways to re-kindle our relationship with God and developing good habits over the coming weeks of Lent that can be sustained throughout the rest of the year.
During Lent we will see the ‘penitential purple’ displayed on the altar frontals and in the vestments worn by the priests. Additional penitence in our Eucharistic worship is acknowledged by omitting the Gloria and Alleluias. Also our hymns and psalms during Lent lean towards the more solemn.
This evening at the start of Lent we are invited to receive the mark of a cross on our foreheads. The ash having been made by Doug from last year’s Palm Crosses that have been burned and mixed with a little olive oil.
These outward symbols and actions are part of the annual service for our church community, but we also need to make a personal commitment through prayer and study in order to be reminded that true happiness comes from knowing that God loves us. Our true vocation as practising Christians is to love God and our neighbour.
We heard in our Gospel reading that Jesus condemned those who forced their penitential humility down the throats of others by being boastful. He told his disciples to continue to go about their daily lives ‘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’.
As part of our annual servicing it may be that we prayerfully reflect on what is ‘treasure’ to us -what do we value most in our lives? Hopefully our annual servicing will result in our bodies, minds and spirits working smoothly, efficiently and safely! Amen