Education is a process that never ends, and I learned something new that I had not known previously about the season of Lent.
We begin the observance of Lent tonight with our Ash Wednesday service, and like most pastors, I know a few things about Lent. What I did not know until this week is that the word “Lent” originally meant the season of spring! I picked this up from a colleague in ministry - the Reverend Dr. Fred Anderson of the Madison Avenue Presbyterian Church in New York.
Maybe you knew that, but I did not. In fact in Old English, even as late as the 1300s, Lent was the word that referred to our post-winter season. It was only in the 14th century that Spring sprung into common use.
And here it is Ash Wednesday and we are getting ready for some spiritual Spring cleaning with a bit of dusting – not removing dust, but adding dust. Ashes are about to be placed on our foreheads.
But now that I know about the history behind the word “Lent” I am thinking about spring cleaning and dusting – getting rid of the cobwebs that have gathered in our lives, or the other unnecessary trash that get in the way of our understanding of God in our lives.
Holy dusting for Christians has traditionally involved three spiritual disciplines: prayer, self-denial, and acts of charity, or more specifically still, giving to the poor.
These Lenten traditions are very ancient, but helpful to us in our modern world.
Prayer is, of course, how we draw near to God. It is an intentional communication and contact with God.
It is a time of focusing on the always present God, in such a way that we can truly feel the presence of God.
On Sunday mornings, our bulletin includes the Seven Marks of Discipleship – seven actions that ought to always be part of our lives, and one of them is to pray daily.
If you have not already been practicing this discipline daily, I invite you to begin your holy dusting this way. Commit yourself to praying daily – or better yet, three times daily - with prayer at morning, noon, and night. It need not be long or eloquent. The prayer simply needs to be purposeful and intentional.
Philippians 4:6 teaches us “Do not be anxious about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God.
And in 1 Thessalonians 5:17, we are instructed to “Pray without ceasing.”
Self denial is another one of the ancient disciplines.
This was often done through the act of fasting, and during Lent one of the strong traditions was to deny oneself of a type of food – perhaps coffee, chocolate, or other food to which one had become dependent. But more than fasting, self denial might be the elimination of smoking or other unhealthy action. It might mean controlling the amount of alcohol. In this 21st century, it might mean denying oneself of technology – television, texting, or other online diversions. Anything that keeps us from connecting with God or our neighbors can be something we might deny ourselves for a period of time.
This sort of self denial helps clear the mind, clean up our spirit, and draw us back into intentional dependence on God.
Self denial is holy dusting for our spring cleaning – our Lenten observance.
In Matthew 4, Jesus begins his ministry with a period of 40 days of self denial – fasting in the desert. It is what makes him strong enough to resist Satan and to begin his journey to death on the cross and the resurrection to follow.
The third way we shake the dust off of our lives is through charity.
Intentional, generous, purposeful giving to the poor or the needy.
Caring for the poor among us is one of the foundational acts to being a member of the people of God.
Time and again Jesus calls us to give to the poor and to help those less fortunate than we are.
In Matthew 25 we read these words:
31 “When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, then he will sit on the throne of his glory. All the nations will be gathered before him, and he will separate people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats, and he will put the sheep at his right hand and the goats at the left. Then the king will say to those at his right hand, ‘Come, you that are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world; for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.’ Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry and gave you food, or thirsty and gave you something to drink? And when was it that we saw you a stranger and welcomed you, or naked and gave you clothing? And when was it that we saw you sick or in prison and visited you?’ And the king will answer them, ‘Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family,[g] you did it to me.’ Then he will say to those at his left hand, ‘You that are accursed, depart from me into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels; for I was hungry and you gave me no food, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, I was a stranger and you did not welcome me, naked and you did not give me clothing, sick and in prison and you did not visit me.’ Then they also will answer, ‘Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison, and did not take care of you?’ Then he will answer them, ‘Truly I tell you, just as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to me.’ And these will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life.”
We are expected to show charity to the poor and needy.
As you push the dust out of your life this Lent, begin to look for a way in which you can give to someone in need. See what a difference it makes – not just in the life of the person you help, but in your own life.
Finally, as you begin this season of holy dusting, I invite you to take upon yourself the dust of ashes.
Ashes have long been, since earliest biblical times, a sign of grief and repentance. They also serve to remind us that you and I are mere mortals who live by the grace of God, and someday will die and be embraced in the salvation of God.
"Remember you are dust, from dust you have come and to dust you will return. Repent and believe the gospel."
This evening we mark ourselves for this time of holy dusting, this spring cleaning of our souls, so that we might be better prepared for Lent, better prepared for Easter, and better prepared to be the disciples Christ seeks.
Dr. W. Maynard Pittendreigh
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