Every school day at 6:30 AM, I trudge up the stairs to make sure Eliza and Lainey are starting to wake up. Yesterday, I had more of a lilt in my step as I came through the bedroom door smiling and saying, “Happy Pancake Day!” They were a bit confused by my excitement, and weren’t quite sure what to make of Pancake Day. We chatted for a moment about Shrove Tuesday and the practice, at least in the Episcopal Church, of eating pancakes before the beginning of Lent. I realized in the course of that conversation that I’ve probably eaten pancakes on Shrove Tuesday for each of the last 36 years. While our girls have been doing it since birth, for them, these habits are still rather new, and in a lot of ways, foreign.
I had a similar experience about two weeks ago when I invited Vonda, our Parish Administrator, to join me for the burning of the palms. Vonda didn’t grow up in a liturgical tradition, and so, much of what we do around here – from albs, cinctures, stoles, and chasubles, to Shrove Tuesday, Ash Wednesday, and the Easter Triduum – are brand new to her. We talked a bit about the ways in which the liturgical actions of Palm Sunday help us remember Jesus’ last week, from marching up 12th Avenue waving palm fronds shouting “Hosanna!” to hearing the Passion and crying out “Crucify him!” I shared with her how we save those palms each year to be burned and ground into ashes that, on Ash Wednesday, get smeared across our foreheads as a reminder of our mortality and a symbol of our penitence – an outward and visible sign of our need for forgiveness and God’s deep desire to forgive.
It is easy, especially for me as a clergy person, to get so used to these symbols and events that I forget what they are really meant to be about. I can get so caught up in the details of a printer that is acting up, palms that need to be burned, and new fronds that need to be ordered, that the whole season of Lent can turn into one long to-do list. Before I know it, a season that is meant to be set aside for the intentional work of holiness can just become another season of busy work. I imagine that clergy aren’t the only ones who are susceptible to this condition. Cultural LentÔ, with its 2 for six-dollar fast food fish sandwiches and giving-up-chocolate, can become so routine that it loses all of its depth of meaning.
I think this might be what Jesus was on to when he admonished his disciples to beware of practicing their personal piety before others. To Jesus’ mind, the regular practices of the faithful had become so monotonous as to have lost all real meaning. Giving alms, prayer, and fasting, the three-legged stool of spirituality for the faithful Jew had become, for some, nothing more than a chance to show off. Going to the Synagogue was, for some, merely a chance to get their ticket punched, to go through the motions required by the law, and then to go back out into the world as if nothing had really changed. “When you approach the throne of God just so others will see you, being seen is all the reward you will get,” Jesus says, “But, if you approach the throne of God with humility, penitence, and the desire to be changed, then God, who sees in secret, will reward you with a depth of relationship that is beyond even your wildest imagination.”
In just a minute, Mother Becca will invite us, on behalf of the Church, to the observance of a holy Lent. She will ask us all to take on intentional practices of self-examination, self-denial, and prayer. As a symbol of our accepting that invitation, an ashen cross will be marked upon our foreheads, not so that everyone can see that we got our Ash Wednesday merit badges, but so that, when you see yourself in the mirror later today, you might remember that the season of Lent is meant to change you. The practices you take on this season, those done in public and those done in secret, are meant to bring you into a deeper, fuller, richer relationship with God who, Lent also reminds us, sent God the Son into the world, who taught and lived a life of love, compassion, and grace, who was betrayed by one of his closest friends, condemned to death in a sham trial, crucified on a trash heap, died an excruciating death, and was hastily buried in shame on the eve of the sabbath.
The work of a holy Lent is not easy work, but it is of great reward to those who engage it with integrity. Whether this is your first or your ninety-first Ash Wednesday, I hope you will heed the invitation and spend these next forty days engaging in the practices of holiness and preparing yourself, your body and soul, for the resurrection of Jesus Christ, for the indwelling of the Kingdom of God, and for the resurrection life to which God invites us all. May your Father who sees in secret reward you richly with grace and mercy this Lent. Amen.