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A Sermon for Ash Wednesday

by R. D. Crouse

King’s College Chapel, February 12, 1986


“Behold we go up to Jerusalem.” 


The series of Epistle and Gospel lessons for Sundays and Holy Days printed in our Prayer Book preserves for us a reasoned pattern of instruction, common throughout Western Christendom historically, and very little has changed since the early Christian centuries.  Thus, today we read a Gospel lesson which has been unchanged since the sixth century, when St. Gregory the Great finally settled upon Ash Wednesday as the first day of Lent, while our Epistle lesson is one of the few altered readings, chosen for our Canadian revised Prayer Book of 1962.


Although the season of Lent has always included forty days of fasting, imitating the forty days of Jesus in the wilderness, sometimes in ancient Christendom it began earlier, because certain days – for instance Sundays, Saturdays and Thursdays, were sometimes excluded from the fast.  Thus, our three pre-Lenten Sundays, Septuagesima, Sexagesima, and Quinquagesima, were apparently all at one time or another beginnings of Lent, and their Epistle and Gospel lessons, which have not been changed, retain that character. And thus they serve for us as a three-fold and progressive introduction to the season, preparing us to understand its message and meaning.  In various way, they all present Lent in terms of discipline and struggle, pilgrimage and labour, moved and sustained by the grace of God.


Thus, in the Epistle for Septuagesima, we heard about Olympic athletes, training with careful discipline to compete for a fading crown of laurel leaves. How much more earnest, says St. Paul, must be the training and the discipline of those who seek the incorruptible crown of spiritual good.  And in the Gospel for that day, we heard Jesus’ story of the labourers, called into the vineyard, each of whom – even those who came at the last, eleventh hour – received the same reward; reminding us that the prize of all our striving is, after all, God’s free and generous gift.


On Sexagesima Sunday, the Epistle underlined again the theme of discipline and struggle, with St. Paul’s powerful account of his own trials and sufferings in the vineyard of the Lord; while the Gospel lesson, Jesus’ parable of the Sower, explained more fully the meaning of that struggle. The word of God, said Jesus, is like seed, sown in the ground of human hearts.  Like seed, it is threatened by many perils:  drought and choking weeds and predators of one sort or another.  It is the free gift of God, certainly, but only in honest and good hearts will it be cherished, and cultivated, and bring forth fruit.


In the Scriptures for last Sunday, Quinquagesima, the Lenten theme was brought to still more perfect clarity, with Jesus’ announcement to the twelve:  “Behold we go up to Jerusalem.”  That is the central theme of Lent.  We go up to Jerusalem with Jesus, to witness there the almighty charity of God in the Passion of his Son, and to be transformed by that same charity.  As with the blind beggar by the road to Jericho, in that Gospel lesson, the blind eyes of our faith are to be opened to the glory of his sacrifice, and, as St. Paul told us on the Epistle lesson, that charity, that obedient, self-giving love, that steadfast, clear-sighted willing of the good, which is manifest in Calvary, is to be the substance of our own new life, the very essence of our spiritual maturity, the good and honest heart, the very habit of life of heaven, without which – whatever our gift, our struggles and achievements – we are “nothing worth”; just “sounding brass and tinkling cymbal”, just noisy nonsense.


The Scripture lessons for those weeks of preparation have shown us the meaning, and the character, and the urgency of the pilgrimage of Lent.  Now it remains only to undertake it, and today’s lessons urge us to do just that; with penitence for our wickedness and carelessness and double-mindedness; with a discipline which is not just external forms, but the inner discipline of mind and heart; striving not for worldly self-improvement, but for the treasure of eternal good.  It is only by earnest, and persistent, and sometimes painful discipline that we are weaned from mindless conformity to worldly ends, and find that renewal of the mind which is spiritual freedom and maturity.  That liberation is what Lent is all about.  “Behold we go up to Jerusalem.”  There is our treasure, in the charity of God, and there must our hearts be also.


I want to finish with just a few words of what I hope is practical advice for Lent.  It’s not easy – indeed, I’m afraid that sometimes it’s even presumptuous – to give detailed practical advice to a congregation in general; but I would say just this:  You are surrounded here by opportunities – in this chapel every day, and every day in your academic and social life, and I hope you will not waste these opportunities.  But, whatever your plans for Lent, I think they should include a careful, thoughtful and repeated meditation on the Prayer Book lessons for the Lenten Sundays, to discover for yourself the road they chart – the road of pilgrimage to a spiritual Jerusalem, which is above, and free, and is our home.


“Behold we go up to Jerusalem.”  Amen.  So be it.