Ashes for Growth
God of resurrection and life, you bring forth the first green of spring from the cold damp earth just as you brought forth Jesus from the darkness of the tomb. Help us to see your coming kingdom even as we walk in it now, always yearning toward new life in your glory yet to come. Amen
We had a wonderful Shrove Tuesday Pancake Supper here at Emmanuel last night, and before the supper, while Chef Jackie, and Pancake-flipping Cindy were turning out pancakes in the kitchen, another group of us were outside in the churchyard, burning the palms left from Palm Sunday last year in the churchyard. We used the ashes from the palms we burned for the crosses we wear on our foreheads now.
The ashes are filled with meaning, and they are linked to our Shrove Tuesday celebration.
We burned the palms from last Palm Sunday in the churchyard last night, just as the bacon was sizzling on the stove, and the pancakes were browning on the griddle in the kitchen. The ashes from last year’s palms remind us of our hope as well as our memory — our hope of the resurrection and our memory of our discipleship.
We begin preparing for Lent on Shrove Tuesday by cooking and eating all of the sweet and buttery things that some of us may give up during Lent. During Lent, we remember Jesus’ 40 days and nights in the wilderness, praying, thinking, and preparing for his earthly ministry after his baptism by John in the River Jordan.
Now, I’ve been an Episcopalian all my life, and I grew up in the minority in a community of Roman Catholics, so I’m used to these questions: What are you giving up for Lent? What will be your Lenten fast? I’ve heard — and probably asked — these questions many, many times over the course of my life. And — maybe like you — I’ve “given things up” for Lent. I’ve fasted from chocolate, coffee, sweets, and wine. I’ve “given up” a favorite short cut walking to school or work. I’ve diligently avoided a favorite word I might otherwise use when I’m really frustrated.
And I wonder whether this was really what Jesus was up to during his 40 days and nights in the wilderness. I wonder if I have grown in discipleship from these disciplines over the Lents of my lifetime, and I wonder if there is a different way to think about it.
Remember that John the Baptist preached repentance, which in the original Greek of the New Testament would have been the word metanoite — it comes into English as metanoia, which means a change in the way you see things. The Latin translation of metanoite is
repentance. There are many associated words in English — penalty, punishment, punitive, penal system — and so the use of the word repentance in John the Baptist’s cry in our English translation of the gospels gets all tied up in those associated words.
We start to think of repentance as punishment — self-denial, abstinence, and even suffering. We think of repentance as stopping doing bad things — drinking, dancing, and cardplaying, if you’re a Southern Baptist — rather than seeing and experiencing the world and our
relationships in a new way. And sometimes it seems that we need to suffer — or to give things up — for that punishment.
Was Jesus suffering in the wilderness those 40 days and nights? Maybe. But it’s also important to know that his isolation was a choice he was making that could have been reversed at any time. Where Jesus was in the wilderness was maybe an hour’s walk out to life in community at any time. He was well in sight of food, water, shelter, and warmth.
Scripture tells us that he was tempted — he wrestled with hard ideas like earthly power, ego, control over his future, obedience to the life he was choosing. But did he give up chocolate — or more likely in his Ancient Near East context, dates, olive oil, or wine? I’m not sure that was the focal point of Jesus’ experience in the wilderness, even though he didn’t pack in meals, and the gospels said that he fasted. Jesus was working during that time. Jesus was preparing for something big. Jesus was preparing himself for his own earthly ministry in the wilderness, and Lent is the time we remember that and prepare for our own earthly ministry — what comes next for us after Easter.
Ancient Christians prepared for their baptism during Lent. Infant baptism was not the norm in the early Christian church. Remember that early on, everyone was a convert — an adult who was not raised in Christian practice, but who prepared for baptism by learning about the
church, being mentored and guided in Christian community. Infant baptism didn’t come about until there was a solid community of Christians who had babies — and then baptized them. So Lent especially was the time of intense study and preparation. Catechumens, as these adults who wanted to become Christians were called, read scripture, and learned about the doctrines of the church, to get ready for what it would mean to live in Christian community, and to see the world and their relationships in a new way. After this Lenten period of preparation, they were baptized at Easter.
Preparation for Baptism
We carry on this tradition today in our own Book of Common Prayer. Easter is one of our primary times for baptism in the church, and we will baptize a sweet baby from our community at Easter this year. So how do we use Lent as a time to focus and prepare for our earthly ministry, like Jesus did during his time in the wilderness?
Do we do this by “giving up” chocolate or coffee? Maybe. But not because chocolate or coffee are innately bad or sinful, or because they are pleasures we need to put aside while we “suffer” like Jesus did. That would be the punitive sense of repentance, instead of the perspective-shifting sense that we get from the original Greek metanoiete — where we see the world, and our relationships, in a new way. We don’t need to give up desserts or sweets or wine because they are bad or because God doesn’t want us to enjoy ourselves. I’m not saying we enter Lent with the punitive or suffering sense of repentance. But we could give up anything that gets in the way of who we want to be as Christians. We can give up things that help us focus on our commitment to live as disciples of Jesus, and to prepare for the earthly ministry we want to engage as Easter people — people of new life and resurrection.
Fast of Righteousness
This is the kind of fast that we read about in Isaiah — a fast of righteousness and preparation, and not of self-denial and suffering:
to loose the bonds of injustice,
to undo the thongs of the yoke,
to let the oppressed go free,
and to break every yoke?
Is it not to share your bread with the hungry,
and bring the homeless poor into your house;
when you see the naked, to cover them,
and not to hide yourself from your own kin?
And Jesus in our scripture today tells us how to fast — not by suffering and disfiguring our faces so that other people can tell we’ve given up chocolate, or wine, or cake, but by focusing our attention on God, because God knows who our best selves are and will help us get there if we focus and pay attention, and remove any distractions from our environment.
When I think of Lent, I think of one of my favorite Easter hymns, Now the Green Blade Riseth, written by John McCleod Campbell Crum in England in 1926 while Crum was a canon at Canterbury Cathedral in England. The imagery of Jesus’ resurrection in the hymn is drawn
directly from John 12:23, here in the King James translation Crum used:
And Jesus answered them, saying, the hour is come, that the Son of man should be glorified.
Verily, verily, I say unto you, except a corn of wheat fall into the ground
and die, it abideth alone: but if it die, it bringeth forth much fruit.
What does a grain of wheat lying in the cold, dark ground do? It doesn’t hibernate. It’s not dormant. It’s not denying itself the nutrients it needs to become wheat. Instead, it is nourishing itself. It is preparing for its next stage. It is taking on water and nutrients from the soil, and sprouting and greening in its seed sheath:
Now the green blade riseth, from the buried grain
Wheat that in dark earth many days has lain;
Love lives again, that with the dead has been:
Love is come again like wheat that springeth green.
Lent itself is a season of preparation. We remember Jesus’ preparation, and prepare for our own earthly ministry, by focusing on where Jesus is present in our lives during Lent. We mark the beginning of Lent — this time of preparation for our earthly ministry — with the mark of the cross on our foreheads in ashes, to remember God’s presence with us, nourishing and guiding us.