Wednesday, March 5, 2014

Ash Wednesday

2 Corinthians 5:20b-6:10; Matthew 6.1-6,16-21

+ This evening is a special evening for me. No, it’s not just because it’s Ash Wednesday. No, it’s not that I am all excited about Lent beginning.  It’s nothing like that.

It’s a special night because, tonight, I am, at this moment, celebrating my 1,000 Mass as a priest. 1,000 masses as a priest in ten years of ordained ministry. That doesn’t included the masses I’ve concelebrated. Or the ones I’ve attended and participated in by my presence.  These are just the ones I’ve actually celebrated at.

Now, you don’t often hear of priests celebrating such things. Why? Because most priests aren’t weird like your priest is. Most priests don’t count the number of masses they’ve celebrated. I only know this because I’ve kept track. I’ve kept a personal record. And back, ten years ago, in fact, ten years ago on June 13, 2004, when I celebrated my very first mass as a priest, I just started writing down all the masses, all the home communions, all the anointing, all the confessions. And weirdly, back then, I never thought I’d approach such a number.

I didn’t think that far ahead down the road.  Because in 2004, I was only two years out from my cancer diagnosis.  And there was still, a sense then, that I might not have ten years ahead of me. Instead, I simply took each Mass, each communion visit, each time I received Holy Communion with gratitude, knowing that I might not have many more.

St. Teresa, in the priest’s vesting rooms of all of her convents, made sure that an old saying was saying posted in the sacristy where the priest could see it as he prepared for mass.

It read, “Oh, holy priest of Jesus Christ, celebrate this mass as if it were your first mass, your
last mass, your only mass.”

I can say that I have done just that over the last ten years. That saying, for me, has always been a Momento mori—which means “bear in mind that you will die.” In the day—we’re talking the medieval and renaissance day—it was common for people to keep some kind of momenti mori around—a reminder of death. Often, that was a human skull- a real human skull. Of course, when you think of it, what makes a better reminder of death than a skull?

In those days, one was encouraged to look at the skull as one would look into a mirror, realizing that what one was looking at was really themselves. To some extent, as morbid as it might seem, I think it wouldn’t hurt us to think about and ponder such things in our own lives. In our lives, we do go about oblivious to death. We go around as though we are invincible, that we are eternal, that this moment in which we are living will last forever.  As much as we might wish for that and hope for that, the fact is, it is not the case.

For many of us, this fact was driven home for us this very day with the news that Deacon Terry Star, whom many of us here this evening knew, died very suddenly, very unexpectedly, yesterday morning at age 40 in his room in Kemper Hall at Nashotah House Seminary.  News such as that, or even this service this evening is really, in a sense, our own Momento mori.

In this service we are reminded in no uncertain terms that one day, whether we like it or not, each every person in this church this evening will stop breathing and will die.  I’m sorry to have to say that. I don’t like saying that. None of us want to hear that.  It’s sobering. But it’s what we are reminded of this evening and throughout this season of Lent.

We will stop breathing. We will die. Our bodies will be made into something that will be disposed of—either by burying in the ground, or by being cremated.

That realization essentially is what Ash Wednesday and the season of Lent are all about. It is a time for us to stop, to ponder, to take a look around us and to take a long, hard, serious look at ourselves and our relationship with God. It isn’t easy to do.  It isn’t easy to look at where we’ve failed in our lives in our relationship with others. It isn’t easy to look at ourselves as disposable physical beings that can so easily be buried or burned to ashes.  It isn’t easy to imagine there will be a day—possibly sooner than later—when life as we know it right now will end.  It isn’t easy to shake ourselves from our complacent lives. Because we like complacency. We like predictability. We like our comfortable existence.

However, we need to be careful when we head down this path. As we consider and ponder these things, we shouldn’t allow ourselves to become depressed or hopeless. 

Yes, our mortality is frightening.  Yes, it is sobering and depressing to think that we, at this moment, find so normal and comfortable will one day end.  But this season is Lent is also a time of preparation.  It is a preparation of the glory of Easter. And in that way, also, our lives as Christians also lead.

It would be depressing and bleak is the skull was the end of our story. It would be sad and sorrowful if all we are reminded of when we ponder the cremation fire is the finality of this life. It would be horrible if we were not able to see the momento moris of our lives as gateways to something larger and more wonderful.

But for us, death is a gateway. Death does lead not to eternal non-existence, bur rather to eternal existence.  The darkness of death leads to the glorious light of Easter.

What I like about Lent is that is shows us that, even though we are living in the glorious light of Easter, bestowed on us at our Baptism, it’s not always light and flowers and happiness all the time. If our Christian was only that, it would be a frivolous faith. It wouldn’t be taken seriously because it would ignore a very important part of our lives.

But Lent shows us that, as Christians, we are to reflect about where we have failed—where we have failed God, failed others and failed ourselves. And it reminds us that death—death of our loved ones and our own deaths—is simply a fact of life.  It is a part of who we are and what we are. It forces us to realize that we are wholly dependent upon God for our life and for what comes after death.

Of course Ash Wednesday is not a time to disparage our bodies, to believe that our bodies are some kind of prisons for our souls. If we truly believe in the Resurrection, if we believe that Jesus was God Incarnate—God in the flesh—then we cannot believe that somehow the spirit is all-good and the flesh is all-bad.

 All we do on this Ash Wednesday is acknowledge the fact that we are mortal, that our bodies have limits and because they do, we too are limited.  It’s not a matter of denying our bodies or seeing our bodies as sinful, disgraceful things. Rather it is simply a matter of not making our bodies our treasures.

Jesus tells us in tonight’s Gospel not to lay up our treasures on earth, in corrupting things, but to store up our treasures in heaven. A lot of us put more store in our bodies than we need. We sometimes don’t take great joy in our bodies at all, but rather abuse our bodies or become inordinately obsessed with our bodies and in what used to be called “the way of the flesh.”

This time of Lent is find a balance with our physical selves as well as with our spiritual selves. That is really the true meaning of Lent.

Where are our treasures? Are they here, in the corruptible? Or in they in the incorruptible?

This is the question we must ask on this evening. This is the question we should be pondering throughout this season.   So, as we head into this season of Lent, let it truly be a holy time.

Let it be a time in which we ponder whatever momento mori we might have in your life. Let it be a time in which we recognize the limitations of our own self—whether they be physical or emotional or spiritual.

But more than anything, let this holy season Lent be a time of reflection and self-assessment. Let it be a time of growth—both in our self-awareness and in our awareness of God’s presence in goodness in our lives.

As St. Paul says in our reading from this evening: “Now is the acceptable time.”

“Now is the day of salvation.”

It is the acceptable time. It is the day of salvation.  Let us take full advantage of it.




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