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Summary: We have been freed in Christ to be failures, and thus we can try without fear.
Today, Ash Wednesday, we mark the beginning of Lent. Lent itself originated no later that the 2nd C. AD. It started as a period of fasting and prayer for those who were to be baptized at Easter, which was the primary time for baptism.
This period of fasting and prayer was generally only one or two days long at first, but by the 4th century we find St Athanasius, the Bishop of Alexandria, setting out a forty-day fast, although the length of Lent was never uniform throughout the whole Church, and still isnít even today.
Later on, as an afterthought, so to speak, the 40 days came to be associated with the gospel account of Jesus fasting for 40 days.
From the 4th century onwards Christians began to keep what we now call Holy Week, beginning with the commemoration of Jesusí entry into Jerusalem with the carrying of palm branches.
As baptism at Easter became less common, so Lent changed its character to become a penitential season of "mourning for sin".
In the Gallican churches, that is the churches in France, those penitents who were seeking to be restored to Communion at Easter appeared at church on the first day of Lent, robed in sackcloth and prepared to have ashes cast upon their heads, ashes made from the palms of the previous Palm Sunday, so that they really did repent in sackcloth and ashes. During the course of the Middle Ages this developed into the marking of the foreheads of all the faithful with ashes as a sign of the penitential character that Lent had come to have for the whole Church.
In the 16th century the Reformers dropped the practice for two reasons. 1) They disliked blessing things rather than people, and 2) they thought it was contrary to Matthewís gospel on fasting in secret. But today, if you and I have happily carried palm leaves or palm crosses on Palm Sunday, then we can certainly receive a cross of ashes on this day, not just as a mourning for sin but as a taking up anew of our Christian discipleship.
Stop and think for a moment. What did we do on Palm Sunday? We held palm crosses or palm leaves as we sang in procession, "All glory, laud and honour, to thee, Redeemer King". But how many times in the year that has followed have we only said, "Lord! Lord!", while our feet, our hands, our tongue and our heart have gone another way, both in things said and done and in things left undone, as we have failed to go in the way of love, in the way of the cross of Christ, as we have failed to give him glory, laud and honour by failing to share his love at all times and in all places with all people?
And so it is fitting that the palms of praise from Palm Sunday have been burned to become the ashes of repentance of Ash Wednesday, so that we may be signed again with the Cross of Christ in token of our penitence and of our desire to walk anew with our Lord Jesus Christ in the way of the cross. We receive the cross of ashes in token that it is only by Godís grace and not our own strength that our heart, our tongue, our hands and our feet may show forth the reign of Godís love as seen in Christ who reigns from the cross.
If today we freely admit our failure to follow Christ fully, then this is part and parcel of the good news of the Gospel. For you and I have been freed in Christ to be failures. We do not have or succeed; we only have to try - repeatedly, time and again.
You have heard it said that the road to hell is paved with good intentions. Well, I would assure you that both the road to hell and the road to heaven are paved with good intentions. The road to hell is paved with the good intentions of those who tried, failed, and gave up, while the road to heaven is paved with the good intentions of those who tried, failed, and asked God to start them over, repeatedly. That is the difference. Because we are held by the unbreakable love of God, we do not have to look out for No. 1: my rights, my perks, my justice, my good name, my success. Godís love in Christ frees us from having to prop up ourselves. We do not have to succeed, we only have to try, and so we are freed to have a go, we are freed to reach out to others even when we are likely to be rebuffed, we are freed to try even when we may fail. We are freed to die to ourselves. We are freed to say, "Sorry"; we are freed to say, "It was my fault. Please forgive me." We do not have to pass the buck or look for someone or something else to blame.
It is striking that when one reads those letters that are actually by St Paul, namely Romans, 1 & 2 Corinthians, Galatians and Philemon, that he never speaks of sins, that is, of sin in the plural, but only of sin. This is because he rightly sees that sin is like an endemic disease of which individual acts are the symptoms, not the cause. Just as red spots and a fever are the symptoms of measles, not the disease itself. The problem is located within us, not outside us.
And so it is the disease of sin which needs to be cured. If sin is essentially lovelessness, that is, an unwillingness to love, to put ourselves out for others with no thought of return, then the base of this is fear, fear for ourselves, so that we must maintain ourselves at all costs. As the First Letter of John reminds us, perfect love casts out fear, that unbreakable and perfected love seen in Jesus raised up in the cross and shed abroad in our hearts by Godís Holy Spirit.
So what is changed is not the situation we face but rather our capacity for facing it. But since we repeatedly fail, so we must repeatedly die to ourselves that God may raise us anew in Christ. This is the death and resurrection pattern that is central to our life in Christ. And this is why whenever we gather for Christian worship we always have an act of penitence: a confession of sin followed by the assurance of Godís forgiving and empowering love.
Thus we may look on Lent as a time for dying to ourselves with Christ that God may raise us at Easter. Which brings us to the question of what is our Lenten discipline to be and to what purpose?
In the Book of the Prophet Isaiah (58.1-8) we find it stressed that true fasting issues in concern for justice for the poor and the powerless:- the oppressed, the hungry, the homeless and the naked. So a true Lenten fast should enable us to be more concerned for a just and caring society by freeing us from being too tied to our own desires, appetites and possessions.
And Lukeís story about the upright Pharisee and the despised taxgatherer in the temple reminds us to deepen our dependence upon God and not ourselves or our own doing if we would enter into that abiding relationship with God which is offered to us in and through Jesus Christ.
So what are we to do? I would suggest that you do not start anything that you will be only too glad to drop at Easter, for that will be of no real continuing help.
Do tighten up what you have become lax about. That is, build an ongoing discipline. You might think in terms of time for prayer or meditation, time for reading the Bible or study of a Christian classic, and time for giving of yourself in service.
As for the aspect of fasting and abstinence, Lent is an excellent time for abstaining wholly or in part from any thing or activity that may be so dominant in your life that it inhibits your freedom to be actively concerned for others.
And the purpose of this, our Christian discipline, is that we may be free to love - without ourselves, our possessions, or anything else, getting in the way. Thus we shall be ready to die in Christ that we may live in him, by, in the words of St Lukeís Gospel, "taking up our cross daily." This making ourselves ready for love is the purpose of the self-discipline set forth by St Paul in our reading from 2 Corinthians.
If our Lent is a "mourning for sin", it is not an embarrassed mourning that we have been found out. It is in a real sense a sorrowful mourning that we have hurt Godís love and our neighbour by not fully loving. But at the same time, paradoxically, it is a joyous mourning for sin because we know him whose unbreakable love will flood our hearts anew every time we turn to him.
And so may I wish each one of you a truly enjoyable journey as we walk more closely with Christ in the days ahead that will bring us to the victory of Good Friday and the joy of Easter Day.