Preparing to Bloom

February 10, 2016

Christ Church Episcopal, Norcross, GA
Ash Wednesday  
Isaiah 58:1-12; 2 Corinthians 5:20b-6:10; Matthew 6:1-6, 16-21

As many of you know, I lived in Houston, Texas most of my life. As with any city or town, Houston has its own unique rhythms, customs and colloquialisms that aren’t readily understood by outsiders. Not surprisingly, Atlanta and Georgia have their own, too, so when I moved here 6 years ago, I had a bit of a learning curve.

One of the things that I quickly discovered is that Liquor Stores are called Package Stores, but I didn’t know why. The name seemed so vague to me. So, one day I asked the guy behind the counter, “Why do they call this a Package Store, and not a Liquor Store?” lsHe explained that in Georgia, liquor laws differentiate sales based on whether it is bought by the drink (by the glass) or by the package (by the bottle). Thus, the Package Store.

Since then, I’ve shared this tid-bit of knowledge with others. For many, even life-long Georgians, this was a revelation. They had no clue where the term Package Store came from, and frankly, never even thought about it. And that’s okay. There’s no requirement to know. It doesn’t change anything, really.

But, in the same way, many of us who grew up in the church, certainly in the Episcopal tradition, have encountered and lived with words and practices that we don’t really know the context for, we just do them. Lent can be one of those times.  

LENT-CLIPART-770x380-260x208In reality, the word Lent has been hi-jacked by the church. It has come to mean a time of penitence. It symbolizes Jesus’ 40 days in the desert. But, it might surprise you to learn that the original meaning of the word Lent has nothing to do with repentance, or 40 days, or even giving something up.

The word “Lent” actually comes from the old English word, “lencten,” which simply means “spring.” The root of the word is “long,” but, not long as in “Will Lent EVER be over?” But, “long” as in “the lengthening days,” as we move from the winter solstice toward the spring equinox.[i]

It was only later, when this season of time approaching Spring coincided with the liturgical season of penitence, that the word Lent was claimed and repurposed by the Christian tradition.

Yet, in light of this reframed understanding of the meaning of the word Lent, I wonder how it might inform our practice during these 40 days?

First, let’s consider what is happening during the lengthening of days. During, the cold of winter, although our grass may look dead, and our flowers and trees seem dormant, something is happening. They are still alive. sunshineWe may not be able to see it, but if something weren’t happening inside them, how could they possibly burst through in flower and growth when spring arrives?

So with that in mind, during this season of Lent, what might be happening inside of us that keeps us growing and readies us for the next season? How are we using this time, these 40 days, to cultivate and keep alive those things that are life giving, even if it isn’t noticeable to the outside world?

This interior or behind-the-scenes work is actually encouraged in Matthew’s gospel. It begins by warning us not to practice our piety in front of others. Perhaps not unlike the bud that is doing its work in secret, below the ground, we, too, can do our cultivating and life-giving work, in secret.

And what work is this? Matthew puts forth three things: Almsgiving, Prayer and Fasting.

lent-graphic-cns

Almsgiving – this isn’t just putting money in the collection plate (not that there’s anything wrong with that), yet almsgiving is specifically about giving money, clothes, food, and other things to the poor – to those in need.

Prayer – it says, when you pray, it isn’t about making a public display, but instead, “go into your room and shut the door and pray to your Father who is in secret.” We so rarely make time for quiet prayer and focused reflection. But, in order to cultivate life, some quiet time, some dormancy, is essential.

Fasting – not a common practice for many of us, to be sure. One definition I found defined it this way: To abstain as a religious exercise from food and drink: either entirely, if the fast is for a single day, or from customary and choice nourishment, if it continued several days. I like that phrase: Customary and choice nourishment. So fasting isn’t about losing weight, even though that can be a much enjoyed by-product, it is instead, a religious exercise.  We give up something that’s an indulgence, in order to redirect our attention to God, and to those who have less than we do.

And just to be clear, Jesus didn’t make this stuff up. All these practices were in place long before his time and Jesus practiced them. So, we have his example to follow.

Looking at Isaiah’s prophetic words from our Old Testament reading – in it Isaiah casts fasting in a wholly different light:

Is not this the fast that I choose: to loose the bonds of injustice, to undo the thongs of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free, and to break every yoke?

So, fasting is not so much about giving something up, but instead, it is to work on behalf of those who are bound by injustice or oppression.

And about Almsgiving, Isaiah says:

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?

So, it calls for aiding others, but also, to be authentic with those around us… to not hide our true self from those around us.

And through his prophetic voice, Isaiah foretells of the Spring that is Lent:

IMG_0964If you remove the yoke from among you, the pointing of the finger, the speaking of evil, if you offer your food to the hungry and satisfy the needs of the afflicted, then your light shall rise in the darkness and your gloom be like the noonday.

The Lord will guide you continually, and satisfy your needs in parched places, and make your bones strong; and you shall be like a watered garden, like a spring of water, whose waters never fail.

So with all this in mind, I have reframed my understanding of Lent – not so much grey and gloomy, as living into the promise of flowers.

images (4)Today, even as I take the mark of ashes on my forehead, I will remember that these ashes are a symbol of something that’s happening inside me. The ashes are the remnant of palms once alive, that will live again – more rightly, that never die, but are transformed. So, too, our growth continues during the lengthening of days; through our personal practices of Almsgiving, Fasting and Prayer.

I wish you a Holy Lent. A Lent in which we each continue to grow in God’s love and each practice God’s purpose in our lives.

Photo by Jody

Photo by Jody

 

 

[i] ecumenical-catholic-communion.org/eccpdf/lent.pdf, Accessed Feb. 10, 2016. Author unknown.

One Response to “Preparing to Bloom”

  1. Jim Greenwood said

    Very nice. I read the Isaiah passage and second Corinthian’s lesson at this evening’s Ash Wednesday service. Powerful stuff. Love you lots. Dad

    Jim Greenwood

    >

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