Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Ash Wednesday

Joel 2:12-17 * Matt. 6:16-21
We should be uncomfortable if we hear, in connection with Lent, only concerns about the many things from which we abstain. Yes, we intend to fast and we intend to abstain, and in our outward acts we ought also to place special emphasis on works of mercy. But, these are to aid us in redirecting our hearts to God. The main issue is not simply the rules of Lent, but the purpose those rules are meant to serve. The Gospel reading for this day speaks of that above all else- where the heart is. What we fuss over and care most about is our treasure, that is to say, what we treasure. If, as our Lord tells us to do, we pray, fast and give alms in secret, caring only that the Lord sees, then it is all for the right reason, the reason of a heart of gratitude to God for His mercy. The severe disciplines of Lent are in substance a  penance, that is, an opportunity to redirect our focus on God. It is this same chapter of Matthew in which the Lord Jesus goes on to say, "But seek ye first the kingdom of God, and his righteousness; and all these things shall be added unto you." (v.33) So, in all your Lenten disciplines, pray that the Holy Spirit will so work in you that your heart is turned to God.  
The ashes you wear on your foreheads are not in accord with all that is trendy and stylish in religion; for they are not about healing, prosperity and self-improvement. They are about the one thing in life that you cannot avoid, that one thing that ruins all your hopes and dreams, the one thing that brings the rich man down to the level of the most poor, and that reduces man to the level even of the beasts, until God saves us in our helpless and hopeless weakness from the fate of all flesh. "Remember O Man that thou art dust, and to dust shalt thou return."
Perhaps the women wonder why we say the same words to each person. No, I have not mistaken you for men. But, we are all of the race named Adam, we all belong to the species named Man after its first father whose Fall into sin has unleashed death upon everyone. It is in your first father Adam, the head of Fallen humanity, that you inherited mortality. The words were spoken to Adam in the third chapter of Genesis, where we see clearly to whom God spoke them: "And unto Adam he said, Because thou hast hearkened unto the voice of thy wife, and hast eaten of the tree, of which I commanded thee, saying, Thou shalt not eat of it: cursed is the ground for thy sake; in sorrow shalt thou eat of it all the days of thy life; Thorns also and thistles shall it bring forth to thee; and thou shalt eat the herb of the field; In the sweat of thy face shalt thou eat bread, till thou return unto the ground; for out of it wast thou taken: for dust thou art, and unto dust shalt thou return." (Gen. 3:17-19)        
I thought our religion blamed Eve, for isn't that what all the revisionists are telling us? It seems they are wrong. The Bible lays the responsibility on Adam, which means "Man." This, Adam, is the name God gave to the human race before the Fall, in the day He made them and blessed them. (Gen. 5:2) This has great meaning, as we shall see. 
A movie made in 1951, starring Kirk Douglas, named Detective Story, takes place in a major American city. It is about police and criminals on the surface, but seems to be about sin and redemption under the surface. The detective played by Kirk Douglas hates criminals, and feels very righteous. But, his father was a criminal. As the story unfolds, the detective, Jim McLeod, becomes increasingly aware that, even though he is no criminal, he is not the good and righteous man of his own delusions and self-deception. He learns, quite painfully, that he is sinful and capable of hurting the one person he loves most, his wife. In one scene, he tells how he always wanted to be different from his father, but now discovers that his father, the worst part of what his father was, lives inside him. This movie was made long ago, before the current unhealthy trend in Hollywood always to paint everyone's father as a bad guy, and all father-son relationships as full of strife. But, in 1951 the lines Kirk Douglas spoke were probably shocking. The father that lived inside him seems to have been written with a symbolic and theological meaning. The father, whose evil the hitherto self-righteous detective could not escape, spoke really of Adam. That is, he was a fallen child of a sinful race called Man. 
You were born subject to death because you were conceived in iniquity (as Psalm 51 says). The revisionists are quite wrong in thinking our Bible lays the blame on Eve, for St. Paul takes it up in these words when writing to the Church in Rome:

"Wherefore, as by one man sin entered into the world, and death by sin; and so death passed upon all men, for that all have sinned...For as by one man's disobedience many were made sinners, so by the obedience of one shall many be made righteous. Moreover the law entered, that the offence might abound. But where sin abounded, grace did much more abound: That as sin hath reigned unto death, even so might grace reign through righteousness unto eternal life by Jesus Christ our Lord." (see Rom. 5:12-21)

And writing to the Church in Corinth he said,

"For since by man came death, by man came also the resurrection of the dead. For as in Adam all die, even so in Christ shall all be made alive." (I Cor. 15:21,22)

Someone may think I am getting ahead of the season by mentioning our hope and our salvation in Jesus Christ. Not so, for that is the message; in fact it is always the message. In Easter, yes, then we shall concentrate on our other father, our everlasting father (Isaiah 9:6,7) by whose obedience we can, indeed, have treasure in heaven, and therefore a good and sound heart. In that season we will dwell on the Second Man, the Last Adam, the Lord from Heaven (I Cor. 15: 45-47).
But, in Lent we concentrate on penance. That is, seeing our hopelessness, we treat our bodies with severity of disciplines in order to focus our attention on that heaven where we ought to have our treasure. In the Law of Moses, when a man died his brother would raise up a child to be named as the son of his dead brother. Such a man had two fathers, one natural and one legal. We have two fathers. "For as in Adam all die, even so in Christ shall all be made alive." In Adam we die; in Adam we are hopeless; in Adam we are helpless; In Adam we are sinners. But, when we were baptized our life began again, and if we have a lively faith, then we know our other father. That other father, the Father of the new humanity, died to make us, by adoption, children of His Father. In Christ the Everlasting Father of the new and redeemed human race, God saves us from sin and death; for that we could not do ourselves.         
For now, like Det. Jim McLeod in Detective Story, we must face with honesty the simple truth that we cannot keep ourselves alive. The evil we might think we hate, especially when it takes forms we are able to despise as beneath us, is really in us, in each and everyone of us. Our Fallen father Adam is in us with all his sinfulness, and we are not free. We shall all return to the dust; No truer words have been spoken than these: "thou shalt surely die." Just as we must pass through this time of mortality and weakness, while living with the sorrowful reality of death, we do so with the sure and certain hope of the resurrection on the Last Day. So, we pass through this penitential season of Lent aware that Easter lies ahead. We do have faith in the coming resurrection; and so, at this time, having our treasure in heaven rather than in the things of this world that passes away, we follow Christ to his cross. This is the season that teaches us to face our helpless and sinful condition, and to make war upon it, so that we may truly become ever more thankful for His salvation.


Jack Miller said...

Fr. Hart,
Excellent article, more accurately, homily that takes one where one ought to be taken. I'm not just one who sins, but I have become something, someone who due to his pollutions is deserving of death. There is no escape from that fact, as you well point out. Thus, the gospel, which alone brings forth faith and repentance as we gaze on Him who bore our penalty, our disease, our death that we might be forgiven, sanctified, and changed in order to live unto the very righteousness and holy God we had rejected.

Thank you for leading and setting direction for the sheep.

Anonymous said...

I'm glad I stopped here to graze this morning. Thank you Father. Jack's right. You got me back on path.

Father Ed Ruhlander+

Anonymous said...

We have two Fathers, and we have two births. "That which is born of the flesh is flesh, and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit" (John 3:6). "He on whom you see the Spirit descend and remain, this is he who baptizes with the Holy Spirit" (John 1:33).

And if we have two Fathers, and two births, we also have two bodies. "It is sown a physical body, it is raised a spiritual body. If there is a physical body there is also a spiritual body... The first man was from the earth, a man of dust; the second man is from heaven. As was the man of dust, so are those who are of the dust; and as is the man of heaven, so are those who are of heaven. Just as we have borne the image of the man of dust, we shall also bear the image of heaven" (1 Cor 15: 44-49).


RC Cola said...

Once again you have given a the sermon I wish I had heard on Ash Wednesday.