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Remember that thou art dust and unto dust thou shalt return.

17 February 2010
Today is Ash Wednesday in the Western Church’s calendar. It is a day of uncommon, blunt, corporate and individual honesty. The smudging of ashes in the sign of the cross on the forehead is done with the words, “Remember that thou art dust and unto dust thou shalt return.” These are the words God spoke to Adam and Eve when their disobedience placed them outside of the Garden of Eden, outside Paradise, depriving them of eternal life and landing them in the predicament we know all too well. The ashes are a solemn reminder that separation from God is a dead end.

But there is a way forward. It is by repentance. Repentance is a word that has somehow been narrowed, perhaps by association with cartoons of street-corner preachers with sandwich boards forecasting imminent doom, but it means a turning towards God, an opening of the mind and heart to grace. In a fallen world, our world, repentance is a most creative act. It breaks the ice between us and God, between us and one another. “I’m sorry,” is one of those rare sentences that bring light and freshness to life. At the heart of the Gospel is this message, that God is in Christ, reconciling the world to himself. Repentance, a fresh start, is how we take that invitation of Jesus into our lives.

Think of our Lord’s Summary of the Law which is heard on most Sundays in the Anglican Church: Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all the heart and with all thy soul and with all thy mind…Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself. There are three dimensions here: God, oneself, and one’s neighbor. The disciplines of Lent, prayer, fasting, and almsgiving, address these three dimensions.

Prayer is responding to God, by thought and by deeds, with or without words. Lent is a very good time to renew our prayer life, both corporately and privately. Both of these, corporate and private prayer are enjoined by our Lord. One does not substitute for or replace the other; they feed into one another.
Fasting is not simply abstaining from certain foods or drinks, although it includes it. Fasting can also be thought of as a kind of spiritual pruning. The great prophet Isaiah says we should fast from sin, from finger pointing and fist clenching, from unkindness and injustice, from greed and lust and anger and envy. But perhaps there are also some things in our lives that are simply out of order or in the way of a closer walk with God and better relations with our neighbors and deeper peace within ourselves. Let us think of fasting as a kind of culture of the soul and its faculties, like a proper tending of a garden and its plants. Fasting clears out weeds and makes room for better things in right order.

Almsgiving turns us outward towards our neighbor. It includes giving alms to those who beg from us. Perhaps what we save by fasting can be turned to alms. This is good for us, because it acknowledges that the poor are our flesh and blood brethren, children of the same Father. We can also give time and money to programs that feed and help the poor. But almsgiving, like fasting, includes more. Every encounter we have is an occasion for generosity. People who are not poor, people with means, can be very needy. Come to think of it, we all are, in one way or another, needy. Every encounter presents us with a choice to give time, to smile and be kind, to listen, to give a good word, to speak and witness to the truth, to restrain the temptation to lose patience. This too is almsgiving, and it has a positive affect on all of those around the almsgiver; it certainly makes the atmosphere around the generous and kind soul a more pleasant place to be.

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