Malankara World

Great Lent

Lent for Dummies

by Christopher S. Wendell

Matthew 6:1-6, 16-21
Psalm 103:8-14

If you go to any major bookstore, you will now find large sections of shelf space dedicated to how-to manuals, do-it-yourself manuals and step-by-step guides to just about any task. Tucked among all the titles will come a common word repeated over and over again. Electronics for Dummies, Home Repair for Dummies, Stock Investments for Dummies, Child Rearing for Dummies, Geo-political Theory of Relativism in a Pluralistic World for Dummies.

We like practical instructions to know how to run our computers, fix a leaky faucet or write our first great novel. Yet, when it comes to church, our questions tend not to be so much "how" as "why?" Why did God create the world like this? Why does evil exist? Why do bad things happen to good people? These are the meatier questions that we like to gnaw to their theological bones. Those questions have been asked and will continue to be pondered for millennia.

Tonight we begin our Lenten journey. During the next forty days we are asked to linger in the tension between certainty and nothingness – to allow ourselves to dwell in that place that requires faith. We don't have all the answers. We simply trust that grace is sufficient to carry us. Learning to live with this kind of faith takes practice. It doesn't happen all at once. There are no absolutes.

Our scripture lesson gives us clues about what might be good things to be doing in this "in between" time. Jesus suggests generosity (giving alms), prayer, and self-denial (fasting). Jesus doesn't tell us what to do or even why but simply how – how to give alms, how to pray, and how to fast. In this way we avoid the motivation of the hypocrite and discover the deeper meaning of these spiritual practices.

Practice something until it becomes part of you. (examples: rosary, Taise music, breaking bad habits)

Notice that the important thing here is the warning against doing anything religious simply to look good to someone else. That motivation reveals a flaw in our understanding of what this journey is about. Jesus warned that doing anything so that others might see to make you look religious or feel superior or act holy doesn't accomplish anything important for your spirit.

Rather, we practice our spiritual disciplines, whatever they might be for us, with an eye towards God – not others.

I decided to call this sermon, "Lent for Dummies", not because I believe we aren't smart enough to grasp the purpose, nuances and intricacies of this faith journey. No, I just know that every spiritual experience I have ever had where I bumped up against something I didn't know how to handle on my own – even when those bumps caused me to feel dense or stupid or self-conscious – became an opportunity for grace to show me something new.

In the older testament and even in the time of Jesus, it was a common practice for people to take scripture passages and bind them on their hands, to mark them on their foreheads, to write them on their doorposts and gates. In a few moments I will invite you forward to receive a mark of ashes on your forehead. Following in the ancient tradition of the Hebrews, the traditions of Lent by Christians and our own tradition here at All God's Children, we receive this mark as a sign of our shared commitments. The ashes remind us that we are marked by God, and that God's word is written on our hearts. Ashes also symbolize our dependency on God's grace in our frailty. We know that we were formed from dust and to dust we shall return. The ashes connect us to the earth, that supports and sustains our life, and to which our bodies return in death.

And finally, the ashes are a sign of our willingness to risk death to self, so that we may be more fully alive in God – to let go of those things that keep us from being most fully alive and most fully free. All are welcome to receive this mark. Come as you are and allow God's grace to bless you.

[Editor's Note: This is a sermon preached by a student at the Episcopal Church at Princeton, Princeton University Chapel, March, 2003 (Ash Wednesday.)]

See Also:

Some thoughts about Lent for Busy People by E.F. Pemberton
Do not let us forget the real object of our fast. We deny ourselves to subdue our bodies, so that our spiritual life may increase. We fast that we may be stronger to fight against our besetting sin, our bad habits, and faults. If you do not know, find out at once what is your besetting sin, i.e., the sin you most frequently commit; fight hard against it, and pray for the opposite virtue every day.

Why Great Lent? What's the purpose? How do I take part? by George Aramath
Is it possible to observe the Great Fast/Lent in our current culture? What's the point of it anyway? It seems like an ancient practice irrelevant today.

Lenten Reflections: LENT as FEAST and FAST
Lent is more than just a giving up. It is giving… developing a greater love towards God,
self and others. LENT can be a FEAST AND A FAST.

The Mystery of Lent by Abbot Gueranger O.S.B.
A season so sacred as this of Lent is rich in mysteries. The Church has made it a time of recollection and penance, in preparation for the greatest of all her feasts; she would, therefore, bring into it everything that could excite the faith of her children, and encourage them to go through the arduous work of atonement for their sins. ...

Practice During Lent by Abbot Gueranger O.S.B.
Penance consists in contrition of the soul, and mortification of the body; these two parts are essential to it. The soul has willed the sin; the body has frequently co-operated in its commission. Moreover, man is composed of both soul and body; both, then, should pay homage to their Creator.

Some Hints for Lent by the Rt. Rev. A.C.A. Hall
The chief duties of Lent are Retirement, Prayer, Fasting, Repentance, and Almsgiving.

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