Ash Wednesday: Perspective

This Ash Wednesday, my prayer for you is to get some perspective. I don’t feel like this is the Lent for great disciplines. We’ve given up enough. In a lot of ways, we never left Lent last year. We were never able to gather to sing Hallelujah for Easter. The pandemic took hold in the midst of Lent, and here we are, almost a year later, back to Lent again. We’ve been giving up. We’ve been living with the disciplines of mask wearing, physical distance. We’ve been going without so much that makes us who we are for almost a year now. Maybe it is time to get some perspective.

We’re starting already by giving up our usual practice of marking Ash Wednesday in St. Louis. Given this snow and cold cold weather, we’re not even encouraging folks to come by the church outside to receive Ashes.

I think Jesus would tell us that’s alright. In today’s Gospel there is a contradiction. Jesus tells his followers NOT to disfigure their faces, and then historically in the Ash Wednesday service we go ahead and smear the Ash. Now, without a doubt, the Ashes are a powerful symbol. They hold meaning for many, but in this year when most of us won’t receive Ashes, in a year when we’ve already given up so much, I want to invite you to take the chance to pause, to reflect, to get some perspective.

For almost a year now, we’ve been experimenting with online church. Admittedly some of the experiments have been better than others. But many folks have said, online church has been surprisingly meaningful. I absolutely would prefer to have a church full of people this Ash Wednesday, but while that is still not safe, maybe we can take some perspective, maybe we can take an internal inventory of the practices that are sustaining us, and the ways we are able to engage electronically can be spiritually enriching.

Long before Holy Communion was experimenting with online church, there were other churches out ahead of us. Over a decade ago Trinity Church on Wallstreet produces a series of short medidations for Lent. This is a church with a whole media department, so they’ve been on the cutting edge. I remember well one particular video. It was early days of online video, and this was really more a slideshow. It was one of the best Lent sermons I had ever heard.

The producer explained his Lenten discipline. He lived in Brooklyn, across the River from his office, he explained, and he commute by bicycle. Through most of the year, he crossed over to Manhattan on the majestic Brooklyn Bridge. But this Lent, he changed his route. He rode a few blocks North to take the older Manhattan bridge. It made a small change in his commute, but it meant he saw different sites, different people. Lent was less an experience of giving up or taking on, it was a subtle shift in perspective.

In today’s Gospel, Jesus asks for a similar shift. Spirituality isn’t about appearing holy. Faith isn’t about being all dressed up on Sunday morning, though, if I’m honest, I do miss that a bit.

I was struck by Jesus’ words today: Go into your room. Shut the door.

So many of us have spent so much more time behind our own shut doors this year. We’ve spent time in our inner rooms. The last few days we’ve spent even more time, as the frigid air and deep snow has cut us off from long walks. But I don’t think Jesus is saying we need to spend more time alone, instead Jesus is saying this: God will meet you there.

Jesus lived at a time when God’s presence was geo-located. God was thought to dwell in the Holy of Holies, in the inner sanctum of the temple. God had an inner room, and we were unfit to enter.

Jesus flipped that whole idea on it’s head. God is already, already, where you are. God’s presence is with you, whether you’re out in the snow, here in the church, or you’re stuck home for yet another day. God, the fullness of God is with you. Finding God is about shifting your perspective. Lifting your gaze. Letting go of the images and patterns that have captivated.

So this Lent, perhaps the shift is subtle. I started out by saying we could let go of disciplines, if that’s freeing for you, do let go. I do like to say, each Lent when I preach Ash Wednesday, especially be careful with disciplines around food. Especially if you have struggled with your relationship with your body and food, please don’t take on a food related discipline, or let me give you one. Your discipline with food can be simply: feed your body. If letting go of certain disciplines is freeing for you, for your perspective, if it brings you wholeness and health, then let go.

If a particular discipline can be helpful, I won’t give you a hard time about it, but I would ask you this: How is this Lent helping you to be present to the God who will meet you, even behind that closed door? How is this Lent helping you to shift your perspective?

Published by Mike Angell

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

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