Ash Wednesday: We are not in control of time.

Ash Wednesday marks the start of the sacred season of Lent. The time is sacred, set apart. More than at any season of the year, in Lent, we set aside time. Many priests secretly love Lent, because the general population takes faith more seriously for a time. I admit, its nice when interest in church increases. But I am glad that Lent is a season, a period of days. If people were always this churchy, well, it would be exhausting. The rhythms, the ebbs and flows of the year, they are important for our souls. The Christian Calendar reminds us of something our ancient ancestors knew in their bones. We are not in charge of time.

Last year my husband Ellis and I were in Mexico during the last weeks of Lent. The trip was sort of a “last hurrah” a time between jobs as I finished my previous position on the Presiding Bishop’s staff, and before I came on here at Holy Communion. One Friday we were at Chichen Itza, the ancient Mayan City with towering ruins. We were there for the Vernal Equinox. On that day, thousands come to a particular ancient temple to see the sun’s shadow make the body of a snake down the side of the pyramid. The structure was precisely designed by ancient astrologers to help the Mayans mark this time of year for worship. Also, critically, when the snake appeared, they knew it was time to plant specific crops. The ancients had to closely follow the seasons to make sure they had enough to eat, and at Chichen Itza, that following gave rise to this incredibly architectural wonder of a snake on a staircase. It was an amazing sight, and it made me reflect on the way we mark time.

In our modern day, time can feel a bit static. Most of us don’t spend our time outside planting and harvesting. Besides feeling cold as we walk out of the parking lot (or from the Metrolink) to work, or knowing when the weather is warmer that we’ll probably be getting a little bit of a vacation, our lives tend to have the same general rhythm. We work at computers, many of us, and do the same kind of tasks day in and day out. Now with modern supermarkets, we can even eat whatever kind of produce we’d like all year round. Our great grandparents could never have imagined eating tomatoes in February. Time wasn’t always so consistent. The Christian calendar helps us remember that there are seasons in life. We move in cycles.

We move in the cycles and rhythms of time, even though we might like to resist them. Our culture is fascinated by the idea that we might travel through time. We have been for a long time. Dr. Who, the alien “Time Lord” began traveling through time and space with his companion in the Tardis back in 1963, We are 12 Doctors in, and he seems to be only growing in popularity. Marty McFly in 1989’s Back to the Future II would have arrived in the time-traveling Delorean on October 21, 2015. Sadly we still have to wait for our hoverboards and flying cars. Fiction loves to believe we can control time.

But, no matter how much Dr. Who we stream on Netflix, we are not in charge of time. As the Book of Ecclesiastes, Pete Seeger, and the Byrds remind us: “To every thing there is a season.” This is way Paul goes on about “an acceptable time.” Now is an acceptable time. Time goes marching on. Lent is one of the great reminders that we are a people in a time. In just a moment we will receive Ashes on our foreheads and hear the words “Remember you are dust, and to dust you shall return.” We have a finite amount of time in this life. How will we mark the time?

Father J.J. O’Leary, is a Jesuit priest who used to teach at my college, the University of San Diego. JJ preached perhaps the most memorable homily in my history of Ash Wednesdays. A prolifically brief homilist, his reflections seldom lasted over five minutes, something I can’t promise you today. J.J.’s homilies commonly concluded with the direction to “go into your hearts” and consider something.

That Ash Wednesday Fr. J.J. said simply that when we give something up for Lent, God doesn’t want us to give up things that make us happy. If we enjoy chocolate or a martini at the end of a long day we shouldn’t give them up. God wanted us to give up something that made us sad. He then said. “I invite you go into your hearts to consider what you might give up that makes you sad.”

Disciplines are not meant to be muscular expressions showing what ascetic lives we can live. Often, I think, we treat Lent as an exercise in controlling time. We give up something, or take something on that is too difficult. We try to control an aspect of our life, an aspect of our time. But discipline, in Christianity, is not about control. Discipline has the same root as “disciple.” Discipline, the act of following Christ, is nothing short of submitting portions of our lives to the transformative power of God. Discipline is about letting go, not taking control. It is all about God’s ability to change us, and not at all about our ability to change ourselves.

There’s truth in the old Chinese proverb “Don’t push the river.” Don’t give up something for Lent that makes you happy. Give up something that makes you sad. Don’t take something on for Lent that exhausts you. Take something on that gives you life. Mark the time, set aside the time, don’t try to control the time.

This Lent, at Holy Communion. We’re participating in a wider conversation in the Church. The monks of the Society of Saint John the Evangelist, also known as SSJE, based in the Boston area, have invited the Church to learn about rules of life for Lent. Monks and nuns live by a “rule of life.”

In one of the videos explaining the “Growing a Rule” curriculum, Brother Curtis Almquist introduces the idea of a “rule of life” for the Lenten series this year by saying:

Now when you hear “Rule of Life” part of you may say, “Oh, I can’t deal with one more rule.” But we want you to think again. “Rule,” as in Rule of Life, comes from the Latin regula, from which we get our word “ruler.” And having a Rule of Life is a way of sizing up and getting the right kind of measurement and proportions, the right kind of model, the template, for you to live a life that allows you to be fully and freely alive.

One [reason to live by a Rule of Life] is because life is so precious and it’s also fleeting. We don’t know how long we will be alive. We do know that we only have today to live today; there will not be another day like this. And so having a Rule of Life allows you to attend to what is most important in life as you steward the life that God has given you.

How can we live lives that are focused. How can we practice faith that helps us to live our priorities? How can we give up the distractions in our lives, and keep the focus? The monks of SSJE are inviting the church to see a Rule of Life as something organic, related to nature. They want us to examine the rhythms of prayer and practice in our lives the way you would take stock of a garden plot. What additions are you putting in the soil? How are you watering? What tomato trees and trellises are you putting in place to support your growing priorities in life?

Here at Holy Communion we will be meeting next Wednesday night, and every other week on first and third Wednesdays to talk about the Growing a Rule of Life curriculum. If you sign up on our website or SSJE’s website, you will receive in your email box once a day a short 2-3 minute video meditation and a written transcript that helps you consider how you spend your time this Lent. How are we marking the season?

Whatever practice you engage to mark this season of Lent, may you not be burdened by a great deal of “should-s” and “ought to-s.” May you find yourself free this Lent to be carried by the river of sacred time. May your life be simpler rather than more complicated. May God bless your time richly.

Published by Mike Angell

The Rev. Mike Angell is rector of The Episcopal Church of the Holy Communion in St. Louis.

One thought on “Ash Wednesday: We are not in control of time.

  1. I remember one of your earlier homilies back at St. John’s. You reminded us that we can also use Lenten discipline to add to, rather than remove from, elements of our lives. I’ve thought back on that sermon often, thank you for yet another insight into how Lent can be understood.

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