A few comments on Ash Wednesday
One of my readers asked for some notes on Ash Wednesday; I thought I wouldn't be able to do it, but here you are, Geoff. And here's a good rule: If you answer "No" you can reconsider and change that to "Yes"; if you answer "Yes" you're pretty well stuck!
The question most often asked about Ash Wednesday is what to do after the service: should one leave the amear of ash on one’s forehead or wipe it off. The reasons for washing off the ash appear strong; after all, in the Gospel passage for today the Lord Jesus says, “When you fast, put oil on your head and wash your face, so that your fasting may be seen not by others but by your Father who is in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you.”
In a homily for Ash Wednesday which may be read at another site on line, [see http://www.toronto.anglican.ca/images/Ash_Wed._William_Craig.pdf], I speak in general of the Gospel teaching against “practicing your piety before others in order to be seen by them” and the danger of taking this Gospel passage as an excuse for not practicing your piety at all! There is no need to repeat those observations today. we are good Anglicans, and trust that our people will be able to make their own decision, in light of our Lord’s words, about whether to wipe off their foreheads or not.
Again and again when thinking of these matters, it strikes me that it is a waste of time to worry about our motives. We are all in the process of being saved, of coming to know God in Christ Jesus, and of being remade in his image. Right now our motives for doing good will be mixed: we fear punishment, desire heaven, and yes, desire to be thought good by others. We cannot afford to wait until our motives are pure and selfless before we start to do good. The plain fact is that by doing the right things because we know they are right and regardless of how we feel; by avoiding the wrong, because we know it is wrong and regardless of how much we like it, we come to be better people. What I do comes from my will, regardless of my feelings, and is far more important that what I say or think. I know that this is horribly oversimplified, but it conveys a truth: when we are doing right, we are learning good habits (say, of prayer or almsgiving). So get out there and do good; offering it to God, and asking that your motives and feelings be overlooked. In due course they will be brought to heel, as you yourself learn to answer, or become the answer to, the prayer "Thy will be done",
Rather than worrying about our motives for pious acts, we would do better to make sure that we know what is asked of us. For the important fact about today’s Gospel is that it assumes that we will be giving alms, praying, and fasting. Our Lord does not say, If you give alms, but when you give alms; not if you pray, but when you pray; not if you fast, but when you fast. These three things are the core of the Lenten discipline.
The underlying purpose of this discipline, indeed the underlying purpose of the Christian life is stated in the first reading, from Joel: “Yet even now, says the Lord, return to me with all your heart, with fasting, with weeping, and with mourning; rend your hearts and not your clothing. Return to the Lord, your God, for he is gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love, and relents from punishing.” The call is to return; the true meaning of penitence, and therefore of Lent, is to turn and return to the Lord.
In the readings from 2 Corinthians, St Paul reminds us that we turn to God because of what Christ has doine for us: God made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might becoem the righteousness of God.
If the disciplines of Lent are simply the disciplines of the Christian life, altbeit intensified and performed with greater intention, some folk will object that we do not need a special season but should just be doing the all the time. These are like the people who say we don't need to be merry and generous at Christmas because we are supposed to do it all year round. I've never noticed that these folk are particularly charitable all the rest of the year, but I digress Now I suppose we might not need Lent if we always prayed deeply and gave alms from the fulness of our hearts and not the meagreness of our wallets, if we were always in control of our appetites habits and if we never let a sin or negligence slip by without acknowledging it in sure hope and trust in God’s forgiveness. The plain fact is that we human beings tend not to do the things we can do any time, and only do them, or at least do them better if there is a special time for it. St Paul reminds us, “now is the acceptable time; now is the day of salvation.” Sure, this might mean any time; but why whould we negelct the time that has been appointed for us by our Church?
To make up for not having had time to prepare more notes on the readings, here is a selection from a good old Saxon homily warning people not to neglect Ash Wednesday and the Lent fast. I happened to have it in my file for today,
ÆLFRIC’S HOMILY FOR ASH WEDNESDAY
In Caput Ieiunii (On the Head of the Fast)
from Ælfric’s Lives of the Saints, edited Skeat. pp 261f.
In this Week on Wednesday, throughout the whole world, even as it is appointed, the priests bless clean ashes in church, and lay them upon men’s heads, that thye may have in mind thay they ca,me from earth, and shall again return to dust, even as the Almighty God spake to Adam, after he had sinned against God’s command, “In toil shal thou live, and in sweat shalt thou eat thy loaf upon earth, until thou return again to the same eaerth from which thou camest, because thou art dust, and afterwards shalt to dust return.” This is not said of men’s souls, but of men’s bodies that moulder to dust, and afterwards shall at doomsday, through our Lord’s might, all arise from the earth, that were ever alive, like as all trees are always quickened in Lenten time, which before had been deadened by the winter’s chill.
We read in the books both in the Old Law and in the New that the men who repented of their sins bestrewed themselves with ashes and clothed their bodies with sackcloth. Now let us do this little at the beginning of our Lent that we strew aſhes upon our heads to signify that we ought to repent of our sins during the Lenten fast.
There was a certain foolish man with bishop Ælfstan in Wiltshire, in his household; this man would not go to the ashes on Wednesday, as other men did, who attended at mass; then his companions begged that he would go to the mass-priest, and receive the sacred mysteries which they had received. He said, ‘I will not.’ They still prayed him. He said that he would not, and spake strangely in his talk, and said that he would use his wife at the forbidden time. Then they left him so. It befel that the heretic was riding in that week about some errand, when hounds attacked him very fiercely, and he defended himself untl his spear-shaft stood up before him, and he fell dying. He was then buried, and there lay upon him many loads of earth within seven nights, because he had refused those few ashes.
In the same week came a certain bufoon [sum truđ] to the bishop’s husehold, who heeded no Lenten fast, but went to the kitchen, while the bisho was saying mass, and began to eat; then fell he, at the first morsel, backwards in a swoon, and spat blood, but his life, nevertheless, was with difficulty preserved.
Likewise Athelwold, the holy bishop, who now worketh miracles through God, often told us, that he knew a man with bishop Ælfheah [Alphege], who would drink in Lent whenever it pleased him. Then one day he prayed bishop Ælfheah to bless his cup; he would not, and the fool drank without blessing, and went out. They were baiting a boar by chance outside, and the boar ran against hom and thrust him so that he gave up his life; and so paid for the untimely draught.
Every man wo eateth or drinketh untimely in the holy Lent, or on appointed fast days, let him know in sooth that his soul shall sorely abye it, though his body may here live sound.