Jesus said, "When you fast, you are not to look glum
as the hypocrites do. They change the appearance of their faces so that
others may see they are fasting. I assure you they have already been repaid.
When you fast, see to it that you groom your hair and wash your face. In
that way no one can see you are fasting but your Father who is hidden and
your Father who sees what is hidden will repay you."
As we listen to the words of our Lord in today's Gospel I would say
that there is a bit of a paradox here. "Comb your hair and wash your face."
Just a few minutes ago I put ashes on our foreheads and the question arises:
why is it that we would begin this Lenten season in this way? And what
grim words are spoken to us! "Remember, 0 man, that dust thou art, and
unto dust shalt thou return." The words, of course, are taken from
the third chapter of the Book of Genesis. As our first parents were escorted
out of the Garden of Paradise, they heard these words: "By the sweat
of your face shall you get bread to eat until you return to the ground
from which you were taken; for you are dust and to dust you shall return"
"Remember, 0 man, that thou art dust. . ." A rather grim and
gruesome thought. If we consider what dust is, blowing about, it really
means nothing. It's a symbol of nothingness. Dust. You are dust. Consider
all of the billions of people that have lived on this planet. And God says,
"You are dust." That is grim, very grim. You are dust. You are nothing.
If we were to hear those words and that's all there was to this Lenten
celebration today, it would cause us to despair. Are we were to walk out
of this church and think God has spoken to us and has told us that we are
nothing? Is that all? Is that what this symbol of ashes on our foreheads
Or is there another symbol as well, a symbol that complements those
ashes? When I imposed those ashes on your foreheads, how did I do it? In
the sign of a cross. And that gives meaning to the dust. That gives meaning
to you and to me. We are dust, but we are dust that has been redeemed.
Jesus our Lord. the Son of God, became dust. He became this earth. He
took up this human nature of ours. And that dust was nailed to a cross.
He died on that cross in order that you and I might remember that we are
dust; but that we are redeemed dust. We are precious in the sight of the
Lord. We are not merely nothing. We are God's own, for He has made us so.
In the eighth chapter of the Letter to the Romans, Saint Paul writes this:
"If the Spirit of Him who raised Jesus from the dead dwells in you, then
He who raised Christ from the dead will bring your mortal bodies to life
also through His Spirit dwelling in you" (Romans 8:11).. The Spirit
of God dwelling in us-in this dust - will raise us to life.
It is to this end that you and I come together at the beginning of this
Lenten season, as we begin this journey from ashes to Easter: that we truly
might understand who we are and what we are before God. Indeed, we are
dust. Truly we are nothing. But we are redeemed! We are a people for whom
God has poured out His life. Getting hold of that rather elusive notion
is what our Lenten work is all about. To help us do it, the Church traditionally
lays before us three specific activities to involve us during the Lenten
season: prayer, fasting and almsgiving.
Prayer is the vocal prayer that we offer. But we interpret the idea
of prayer even more widely. Prayer is also an attitude, a mind-set. "Let
this mind be in you that is also in Christ Jesus." We are to have our thoughts
and our minds turned toward God. That's why the prophet Joel said, "Rend
your hearts and not your garments." For a Semite, the heart was the
seat of all understanding and thought. "Change your thinking," Joel is
saying. That is the attitude of prayer: realizing that we are always in
the presence of God, every waking moment of our lives and even when we
are sound asleep, God sustains us in the palm of His hand. That is the
attitude of prayer that we must develop during the Lenten season.
Fasting. Of course, we fast during Lent. The one full meal per day;
abstaining from meat on the proper days. But even more so, fasting means
that we would abstain from that which detracts from what should be our
single-minded purpose of drawing closer to our God. Whatever obstructs
our relationship with God, we abstain from it. It is ancient ascetic practice
to fast: to say no to things that are legitimate in order that we might
more easily say no to the things that are not legitimate; namely, temptation
Thirdly, almsgiving. It means more than dropping the coin or the bill
in the basket. It means more than writing the check to charity. All are
well and good. But almsgiving is more than that. Almsgiving is also an
attitude of mind, where we are more conscious of the fact that we are neighbors
to one another, that we are brothers and sisters in the Lord, and that
we respond to one another's needs. Whenever and however we do that, we
call it almsgiving.
The season before us is a beautiful one, a joyful one. It begins with
the paradox of Ash Wednesday, but it blossoms in forty days in the celebration
of Easter: new risen life in Christ, a life already begun in us. As I marked
you with the sign of the cross today, remember that each and every one
of us has already been marked in the same way at the beginning of our spiritual
life, in the waters of Baptism. There too with the sign of the cross, words
were spoken when we first received the very life of God Himself. "I
baptize thee in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Ghost."
This we want to understand more deeply during the Lenten season. Our
risen life doesn't wait until the end of the world. Our risen life doesn't
wait for Easter. Our risen life has already begun. Let this season be a
time in which we become more and more conscious of that wonderful fact.
We are dust, but we are redeemed dust; made so by Christ our risen Lord!
Please note: These sermons are offered for your meditation. If
you wish to use them for some other purpose or republish them, please credit
St. Dunstanís Church and Fr. Sisterman.