St. Mary’s Anglican Church, Ash Wednesday, Feb 17. 2021 Canon Claude Schroeder
“The word “Lent “ comes from on old English word ‘lencten” meaning ‘spring-time ’ which isn’t particularly helpful in mid February on the Canadian Prairies where we are just starting to come out of a particularly brutal polar vortex.
Besides what does Lent have to do with spring-time?
Lent, as we heard in the exhortation was, in the early Church, a penitential season of preparation for baptism, and the annual journey of remembrance towards the celebration of Easter.
Again, the English language trips us up here somewhat because Easter comes from the Saxon word, “Eostre” which was the name of the pagan goddess of , you guessed it, “springtime.”
So what exactly are we celebrating at Easter? The arrival of spring? Not quite.
The original Greek word for our Easter Festival was ‘Pascha’, from the Hebrew word ‘Pesach’ meaning Passover. Jesus suffered, died, and rose again at the time of the Jewish Passover.
Easter then is our celebration of ‘Pascha’, that is Jesus ‘passing over’ from death to life, and the victory over sin, death, and the devil, and His sharing of that victory with us.
St. Paul wrote that, “ We were buried therefore with him by baptism into death, so that as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life. (Romans 6.4)
Lent then is about new-ness of life; it’s about re-learning, re-discovering, indeed re-experiencing what it means for us to walk in newness of life.
St. Paul explains for us what that means when he went on to write, “Let not sin therefore reign in your mortal bodies, to make you obey their passions. Do not yield your members to sin as instruments of wickedness, but yield yourselves to God as men who have been brought from death to life, and your members to God as instruments of righteousness. (Romans 6. 12-14)
So in Lent, as indeed in the whole of the Christians life, we find ourselves in the midst of a struggle, a struggle with and against what St. Paul called “the passions”, what The Book of Common Prayer calls, “the devices and desires of our own hearts.”
What are these passions, what are these devices and desires?
In the spiritual tradition of the Church, there are 8 basic passions that go by the name of:
Gluttony, lust, avarice, sadness, despondency, anger, vain glory, and pride- but the list really goes on. St. Peter of Damascus , a 12th century monk and spiritual theologian listed a further 298 passions! Reading through his list, you would perhaps be surprised at some of the things he included. Is this really that bad? Upon closer examination they reflect an act, or thought or feeling that is disharmonious or causes a separation between ourselves and God, and so works death in our lives.
It is to this end that in our opening hymn tonight we prayed for the Holy Spirit to come down and visit us, to appear in our hearts and kindle it, with the holy flame that is the love of God.
“O let it freely burn,
till earthly passions turn
to dust and ashes in its heat consuming;
and let thy glorious light
shine ever on my sight,
and clothe me round, the while my path illuming.”
What a blessing, what a gift that we would become the place where the Holy Spirit makes His dwelling!
Lent then is also about the acquisition of the Holy Spirit, wherein we renew within us the power of love. And do we acquire the Holy Spirit? We acquire the Holy Spirit by self-examination and repentance, by prayer, fasting, and self-denial, and by reading and meditation upon God’s holy Word.
It is by no means an easy road that lies ahead of us.
In his spiritual memoir, The Diary of a Russian Priest, Alexander Elchaninov writes,
The great and sad days of Lent are drawing near; after confession and communion, having cleansed our souls, having experienced tenderness and tears, conscious of a new strength within us, we make resolutions to start a new way of life. But usually, on the very day we have received Holy Communion, we stumble over some trifles, hasten to amend our fault, make further blunders, more and then still more; finally shrugging our shoulders, we sink for an entire year into our habitual and painless sinfulness. Then Lent approaches once again; at this very thought the ‘ inner man’ awakens within us, hope lives again, and we await once more those blessed and saving days with trepidation and confidence, hoping for a final and secure restoration of our sluggish and sinful soul. But in between these intentions and true contrition there stretches a long road, full of many obstacles, which is difficult to traverse. I do not speak of outward obstacles- the excess of business worries, thousands of external reasons: however great, these outward obstacles can be overcome, if we have an inner flame, a thirst for purification, and a sincere resolve to achieve it. Far more serious are the inner difficulties – lack of faith, passions, impurity and last, but not least, blindness concerning our sins and a ‘ petrified insensibility’ – these two things in particular.
‘ To see your sins in all their multiplicity and hideousness – this indeed is a gift of God ( John of Kronstadt).
‘ He who knows his own sin is higher than the man who resurrects the dead by his prayers. He who has been granted the gift of seeing himself is superior to the man who has the gift of seeing angels (St. Isaac the Syrian)
And vice versa – blindness to sin, the failure to see it, is the natural condition of fallen man. We unconsciously hide our sins from ourselves, our Lord himself puts part of our sins out of our view for a time, in order afterwards to throw us into terror and sorrow at the clear sight of the abyss of our impurity. But without a clear view of our sins there is no repentance; and if there is no repentance, there is no salvation. ‘ Let me behold my sins’: such is the natural, prayerful sigh of each of us who enters the great season of Lent. To do so, we must not spare ourselves but must renounce ourselves and all our sinful nature….”
And may the Holy Spirit ever be our Comforter and Guide on this journey. Amen.