Joel 2:1-2, 12-17 , Psalm 51:1-17, 2 Corinthians 5:20b-6:10, Matthew 6:1-6, 16-21
Ash Wednesday marks the beginning of the liturgical season of Lent in which there has traditionally been an emphasis on confession, contrition, and penance for our sinfulness. In the coming days, the Church asks you to closely examine yourself, and to exercise self-discipline as a form of preparation for the Feast of The Resurrection on Easter Morning – the feast that reminds us that Christ died for us for the remission of our sins.
Fasting has been a part of God’s plan from the beginning. The reading tonight from Joel reminds us of that, for the prophet says: “turn ye even to me with all your heart, and with fasting, and with weeping, and with mourning: And rend your heart, and not your garments, and turn unto the LORD your God: for he is gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and of great kindness, and repenteth him of the evil." Note that along with the physical fasting, the Lord calls us to “rend our hearts, and not our garments” How can we tear apart our hearts? Only by opening up to the Lord, by pulling down all the barriers, by tearing away every vanity and pretence, by acknowledging and feeling the pain of our sin.
God is not satisfied with a mere show of piety. Coming before the altar and receiving ashes is merely a symbol of what must be a much deeper spiritual remorse and devotion. Do you recall the story of the Priest and the Sinner praying in the temple from the Gospel of Luke?
“The Pharisee stood and prayed thus with himself, God, I thank thee, that I am not as other men are, extortioners, unjust, adulterers, or even as this publican I fast twice in the week, I give tithes of all that I possess. And the publican, standing afar off, would not lift up so much as his eyes unto heaven, but smote upon his breast, saying, God be merciful to me a sinner. I tell you, this man went down to his house justified rather than the other: for every one that exalteth himself shall be abased; and he that humbleth himself shall be exalted [Lu 18:12]. The striking of the chest, over the heart, is a symbol of the rending of heart and penitence. This custom is still observed today as you will see many Christians strike their chest as the say the words: “Lamb of God who taketh away the sin of the world….have mercy on us …”
Our Lord Jesus also told us there would be a time of fasting. In Matthew (9:15) when asked by the Pharisees why his disciples did not fast he said: “Can the children of the bridechamber mourn, as long as the bridegroom is with them? but the days will come, when the bridegroom shall be taken from them, and then shall they fast.”
In Ecclesiastes, the teacher tells us To every thing there is a season, and a time to every purpose under the heaven: A time to weep, and a time to laugh; a time to mourn, and a time to dance. The days of fasting and contrition are upon us now.
This day, Ash Wednesday, marks the beginning of the Lenten season. It lasts 40 days, and we are called to remember the 40 days our Lord fasted in the wilderness after his baptism, when he was tempted of Satan and prepared himself for his ministry. (The season actually has 46 days, with the six Sundays being feast days) During this period, the Church has traditionally fasted by abstaining from certain foods and by reducing the amount of food consumed. This period has also been one of special devotion, sometimes marked by special teachings to help us in our period of preparation and contrition.
And what are we to do? Again the scriptures give us an indication of what God desires. When David’s sin had been exposed by the prophet Nathan, he confessed his sin, and we have available his confession in the form of Psalm 51. In it King David admits that he has sinned against God, and says that God’s desire is for a broken spirit and a broken and contrite heart. Before we celebrate that wonderful Feast of the Resurrection, we have the opportunity to address the sin and mistakes in our lives, but that can only occur when we have humbly confessed our sin before God, repented, and asked for God’s forgiveness. Repentance has three elements: Contrition – or sorrow for sin, Confession of all known sin, and Satisfaction and Amendment of life. The satisfaction may be something you do because of the sin, such as apologizing to one you have hurt, or restitution for some loss you have caused another, or some act of devotion and discipline. Amendment is the cessation of doing what is evil – sin. One cannot continue to indulge in sin and expect forgiveness.
Tonight then, let us look at the sins that the Church has considered to be mortal sins.
1. PRIDE: This is putting yourself before God. When you become self-centered rather than God centered. Jesus’ admonition in the Gopsel clearly pointed to the pride of the Pharisees who paraded their piousness before men. Pride is closely related to the First Commandment: Thou shalt have none other gods but me. Pride is the most dangerous of all of these sins, and the most prevalent in our society. In a culture that worships Secular Humanism, and believes that we are not created by an all-powerful God, but are the result of some accidents in chemistry and biology, pride in man’s ability and science are leading us down a very precarious pathway. St John wrote in his first epistle: “For all that is in the world, the lust of the flesh, and the lust of the eyes, and the pride of life, is not of the Father, but is of the world.” Pride may include:
Irreverence (failure to recognize and observe the sacredness of God)
Sentimentality (being satisfied with merely coming on Sundays and singing the hymns without really following God),
Presumption (that is depending on yourself rather than on God)
Distrust (refusal to recognize God’s Wisdom, Providence, and Love)
Impenitence (refusal to admit our sins – self justification)
2. ANGER: This is open rebellion against God or our fellow creature including retaliation and revenge. Remember in the Sermon on the Mount -- when Jesus expanded on the Sixth Commandment – Thou shalt do no murder - and told his listeners that if they harbored hate for their neighbor they had committed murder in their hearts. Anger includes:
Resentment - which includes transference of our dissatsifaction, cynicism, and annoynace.
Pugnacity – that is an attack upon others – combativeness – argumentative and rudeness.
Retaliation – getting even for a perceived wrong.
3. ENVY – this comes from the Latin word “invidere” meaning “to look at askance” or with disdain. In the Gospel of Mark it is written that Jesus knew the chief priests had stirred the crowds against him before Pilot for “envy”. Envy includes:
Jealousy – offence at the good fortune of others
Malice – slander, gossip, reading false motives into others actions
Contempt – Scorn of another, prejudice.
4. COVETOUSNESS – inordinate accumulation of material things, using people for one’s personal advantage. In the 12th chapter of Luke Jesus said, “Take heed, and beware of covetousness: for a man's life consisteth not in the abundance of the things which he possesseth.”
Prodigality – Extravagance, waste,
5. GLUTTONY – i.e., overindulgence. Jesus spoke of this in the false accusations against him by the Pharisees when he said in the 7th chapter of Luke, ‘The Son of man is come eating and drinking; and ye say, Behold a gluttonous man, and a winebibber, a friend of publicans and sinners’
Intemperance – Overindulgence in food and drink. Fastidiousness. Excessively high standards. The condemnation of some natural things, like alcohol, and attempting to prohibit their use rather than abuse.
Lack of Discipline – Failure to keep ourselves in shape
6. LUST – the misuse of sex for personal gratification. In Matthew Jesus says, “But I say unto you, That whosoever looketh on a woman to lust after her hath committed adultery with her already in his heart.”
Unchastity - Violation of the Church’s marriage laws – this was the sin of David that related to his prayer in Psalm 51, and which led to so many consequences in his house.
Immodesty - attire, actions, words, and reading – consider our society today and its love of the sensual sensation .
Prudery - the fear of sex – the repression of sex
Cruelty – deliberate infliction of pain – in this I am reminded of the Reality shows which I find repulsive, where we are asked to watch as peoples emotions are seemingly, and really, torn and placed on display for our entertainment, and Hollywood’s enrichment.
7. SLOTH is the refusal to respond to our opportunities for growth and service. In the 25th chapter of the Gospel of St. Matthew, Jesus tells the parable of the Good and Faithful Servant, and condemns he who buried his master’s coin by saying: Thou wicked and slothful servant, thou knewest that I reap where I sowed not, and gather where I have not strowed”: Sloth, next to pride, is perhaps the most dangerous of the mortal sins. Jesus gave us the Summary of the Law where he said, “ Love the Lord thy God with all thy heart and soul and mind, and love thy neighbor as thyself.” Sloth directly relates to the latter command, while Pride relates to the former includes:
Laziness – indolence in performing spiritual, mental, and physical duties; neglect of obligations, procrastination of tasks we don’t like.
Indifference – unconcern, neglect, ignoring social injustice, the needy
You are invited to self-examination, confession, repentance, and throughout the Lenten season to a period of discipline and self-denial. The imposition of ashes is a sign of your contrition and repentance. Consider your sins through self examination this night and in the weeks of Lent ahead, and remember the words of St Paul as he said, “If we confess our sins, God is faithful and just to forgive us our sins, and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness. If we say that we have not sinned, we make him a liar, and his word is not in us.” [1 Jo 9-10]
and of St Paul how he said, “work out your own salvation with fear and trembling. For it is God which worketh in you both to will and to do of his good pleasure.” [1 Cor 2:12]
Let us pray:
Almighty and everlasting God, you hate nothing you have made and forgive the sins of all who are penitent: Create and make in us new and contrite hearts, that we, worthily lamenting our sins and acknowledging our wretchedness, may obtain of you, the God of all mercy, perfect remission and forgiveness; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen [BCP]
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