MP3 Audio: WS330336_Fr-Michael_Ash-Wednesday.mp3
Gospel–Reading: Matthew 6:16-21
“Where your treasure is, there will your heart be also.”
In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
As I was coming up here yesterday, I was reflecting and thinking, you know, “What can you say on the thirty-ninth Lent you’re starting as a priest?” I mean, somewhere along the line you figure you’ve pretty-well covered it. Even if you’re talking to different congregations, you sometimes wonder, “Are they listening at all?” So I just want to do some reflecting today upon how important this time is going to be, this period until April 20th.
This is our time. This is the time for sinners. And I’m kind of guessing you’re one of them. This is not the time for the righteous. This is not the time for the holy or for those who think they’ve got it right finally, and can spout to you chapter and verse about canons and food and prostrations and what you should eat and what you should not eat. I think many of those people are already lost unless they just get a real repentance of heart. But this is the time for sinners, and it always comforts me when I read in the Bible that Jesus said, “I have come not to bring the righteous, but sinners to repentance.”
“While we were yet sinners,” Paul says, “Christ died for us.” And that’s one of the reasons, frankly, why he spends so much time hanging out with people that others thought probably didn’t belong to the Kingdom, probably shouldn’t be counted as part of Israel, probably shouldn’t be people that a decent, upright Rabbi should be talking to. And yet, always he came for the sinners, and that means he came for you and for me.
We enter into this fast with a sincere heart which we hope will result in change, without trumpeting, without talking about what we’re doing – because no one should know that except God and, if necessary, your confessor – without comparing fasting rules. “Well, I’m doing . . .” No one is supposed to know anything about this. Nothing! Nobody! It’s between you and God. And like I said, if you need to talk to your priest about it then you do that. But . . . it indicates a lack, frankly, of a sincere heart if we get involved and do those things.
Paul says the outward man is dying, but the inner man is being renewed, and that’s the kind of change that we’re looking for. We’re not necessarily looking for better external circumstances. We’re not necessarily looking for better pay. Those things are not bad; I’m not suggesting that you shouldn’t get them if you can. But I mean that’s not what we’re doing in this particular period. We’re not focusing on how we can consume. Those who call this a consumer society are dead right, I mean we consume and consume and consume and don’t even think about what we’re doing. We’re seeking that kind of inner change, inner transformation, which will truly allow us to be detached from all those things that we just love to have in our lives. A genuine sense of detachment. Not disgust, not condemnation. I mean, I love a decent air conditioning system as much as the next man, but the fact is that you can look at these things and say, “Ok, this we have, this is good, but if it crashes tomorrow, I’m still in Christ. Just perspiring more.” So a separation from our need for all of those external things which have come to mean so much for us.
We should, during this time of Lent, be encouraging one another. It’s often I said that you’re not supposed to be talking to people about what you’re doing. But if you have a problem, if you’re struggling, if you really feel like you’re kind of floundering in all of this, then yeah, you should talk to somebody. And you should talk to somebody within your family here. You should talk to me.
The reason so many people’s Lenten efforts tend to crash and burn – and not just if they’re new at it, people who have been Orthodox forty years can have their Lenten efforts crash and burn easily, so don’t feel bad about it. The reason for that is that we still try to go it alone. We still kind of stand there and think, “Okay, it’s me and the devil. Bring it on!” And we get flattened. Very few of us have the kind of strength that it takes. I mean, when Anthony did that in the desert, the demons physically beat him up. You want that? No. So, I mean, you don’t just go for it and see if you can survive on your own. And if you’re having a struggle, you pick up your phone, you call someone and say, “You know, this is really…I’m really struggling with this thing here. You know, I drove past Wendy’s yesterday and went through the drive-thru just for the smell. Didn’t order anything but I as I went through there.” That’s okay for you to share with a brother or a sister. So you can talk about it; then you can seek their prayer and their support.
All too often, we say we’re being submissive to God, but in fact, even in our Lenten discipline, we’re being submissive to our own will. To a will that says, “I want to do this, I want to do that, I want…” In many ways, we’re a lot like Peter, that big floppy Saint Bernard of an Apostle that would pee on the rug and lick your face, say, “I’ll never deny you Lord. I’ll be there to the very end. You can depend on me.” Or, “Don’t say that, Lord. You can’t go up to Jerusalem.” Jesus says, “Get thee behind me Satan.”
We often, you know, play chicken with God. “I’m going to do this, I’m going to do that.” And since, by the end of the first or second week of Lent, that usually has failed completely, we reverse our narcissism and say, “Well fine, I won’t do anything then. I can’t do this. I won’t do anything.” Rather than rationally and objectively looking at what you’re trying to do during Lent in terms of fasting and praying and what have you, seeking counsel on it and saying, “Maybe, just maybe I tried to do too much,” we retreat into our egos and say, “Well, if I can’t do what I want, I won’t do anything at all.” It’s like we’re five.
In fact, I know some five-year-olds who would handle it better. I think I told you a couple years ago about the priest that I had and was mentoring out in Arkansas who called me just before Lent and said, “I’ve been praying about this and this is what I want to do – I’m not going to eat (the guy must have weighed 250 lbs), I’m not going to eat anything until sundown, I’m going to celebrate Mass every day, I’m going to get up every midnight and say prayers. I’m going to do this, that, and the other thing. What do you think about that?” It’s not like he was discussing this, but, “What do you think about that?”
And I thought, “That’s wonderful. I would suggest, however, that you go down to Target and get yourself a big piece of white pasteboard and a red marker. And you draw a big red circle in the center of that, and smaller circles outside, and wear it on yourself, because you just set yourself up for attack.”
That priest is now divorced, suspended, got some woman living with him . . . that life his entire life collapsed. He went into drug use. Because he tried to play chicken with God. He didn’t discuss what he wanted to do. He just announced, “I’m doing this.”
So faithfully and rationally and consistently find a Lenten discipline you can do, and once having done that, we can find other things. And it will grow, and deepen, and you get better at this. It’s a lot like athletics. You have to build up your endurance. You have to build up your strength. Renew the inner man. Renewing the inner man restores our original beauty. It cleans everything inside. I’m not talking about outward beauty. I’m not suggesting we should go for ugly either, but the point about Lent is, that interiorly, with your fasting, with your praying, with your discipline, you’re seeking to clear your nous.
I’ve talked to you about this before – the nous – that reasoning part of the soul which gets so darkened and polluted by sin that we cannot communicate with God. That gets clearer. I’m not going to tell you it’s going to get completely clear by the end of Lent, but it will get clearer, and God will be better able to communicate to you. You will be better able to hear and to communicate with him. That’s what transforming the inner man means, when Paul writes that.
And recognize that, in the Orthodox tradition when we talk about fasting, we’re talking about fasting not just from food, but from every kind of evil that is out there. Because you can fast with your actions as much as you can fast with your food. So you seek to cut yourself off from all those things that darken your soul – not just the triple cheese burgers and that sort of thing – but all those things that can darken our soul: The anger, the vengeance, the sense of resentment, the emotions and passions we carry around with us all the time which, quite frankly, we enjoy. We really do enjoy them. And we carry these DVDs around with us of all these delicious, delightful hurts that people have done to us – some real and some probably totally imagined. And the simple fact is, we enjoy playing the DVD so we can go back and see what THEY did to us, and how totally justified we are in our response, how totally fine it is that we’re responding this way because, after all, look how deeply they hurt us. And then, of course, we come here and worship the One who when he was reviled, reviled not again, who accepted death upon a cross rather than a fight. But the fact is we often deliciously remember the hurts and slights because they justify the hurts and slights that we give to others.
So you abstain from things such as despondency and idleness. You fast from things such as sluggishness and sloth, jealousy, strife, a malicious self-indulgence and self-will, and I’m instructing you as your father in Christ from this moment forward, the only thing you want to do on the Internet is send email.
If you want to go on Facebook and check how Aunt Tilly is doing in Iowa, that’s probably okay. But go on no – ZERO, ZIP – blog and websites that have the word “Orthodox” in them. The Internet is probably one of the biggest instruments of disunity in Christ’s Church that exists. And I’m convinced those guys out in Silicon Valley must have had horns on them when they were developing this thing. It is simply an electronic form of gossip. And we go on and we view this stuff and we get confused, and we get depressed, we get sluggish. But the Internet has just given a tremendous megaphone to thousands of idiots who, up until now, have been confined to their own village, all of whom also seem to have had a large dose of grumpy mixed into the chrism before they’re brought into the church, and many of whom seem absolutely convinced that they were brought into this church to explain to us how we should be doing it, and how the way I do it is wrong, or the way you do it is wrong, or the way in which they do it is the only right way.
Do not look at them until after Easter. Hopefully you’ll be weaned from the habit by then and won’t ever look at them again. All of these things divert, distract, prevent us from praying, prevent us from reading Scripture, prevent us from thinking, and therefore should not be done.
Be watchful for the tricks that the evil one will pull out and will try to snare us with during Lent. You know, there’s a tag line in, I think it’s one of the Vespers services in the Eastern Rite, during this period in which Adam says, “The food that killed me was beautiful to behold and sweet to eat.” He’s referring, of course, to the fruit he took from the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil. But inside that fruit, which “was beautiful to behold and sweet to eat”, what was there? Death! Death for him, death for Creation, death for all of mankind. But Satan excels at presenting us with things that look good, feel good, taste good and sound good and yet, ultimately, lead us to a spiritual and emotional death.
Remember Satan is the one who can appear if he chooses to as what? An angel of light. The evil one can appear as an angel of light. So can his minions. So he attempts to distract us with illusions. He himself appears as an angel of light: he can take that which seems bad and make it seem good, he can take that which tastes bitter and make it seem sweet, he can take that which is ugly and make it seem beautiful, as a trick, as a delusion, as something which can lead you literally to self-destruction.
I don’t know if I’ve ever told you about the monk, Hero. Hero was a monk back in the fourth or fifth century in some monastery somewhere in the middle-east. And Hero, you know, was a pretty good monk. He was humble, he prayed, he fasted, he loved, he counseled, he consoled. And then, one day, this being appeared to him as an angel. Now if this ever happens to you, the one thing you’re supposed to do is ask, “Who sent you?” Because they cannot lie to you. And if Satan sent them, they’ll tell you, even if they’re standing there looking like the Archangel Michael. Not having had a problem with too many angels appearing to me, it’s not something I’ve personally had to do, but this is what the Saints who have had to do it tell us they do.
So this angelic being appeared to Hero and he says to him, “God is very pleased with you. You are a good monk. You are a faithful monk. You are a disciplined monk.” And he kept appearing to him and talking to him about this. And after a while, Hero began to believe it. And the being said to him, “God is so pleased with you, he wants to give you a proof of how pleased he is. So he has sent me to tell you that nothing can ever physically harm you. You need not fear death.” And so Hero, to test this, went upon the walls on the monastery and threw himself off. He killed himself.
And it was with great effort the other monks – who had seen what was going on and had tried to talk to him about it – convinced the Abbot that he should not be excluded from the cemetery as a suicide. There are canons that say that if you’re under delusion, if you’re distracted (that is the term they used), but if you’re under delusion, if you’re under demonic influence, then you can have Christian burial, which is why my son was buried out of a church.
But Hero himself never got it. Even as he was lying, dying on the ground, he was convinced that what the angelic being had told him was true. Well, the angel was a demon. The angel was a demon who was sent specifically to destroy this man, and succeeded marvelously. Because, I mean, if an angel came to me – again not something I’ve had to beat off particularly – but if an angel came to me and said, “You know, you’re really a good priest. I mean, you’re faithful, you get stuck in airports, you do this, you do that,” I’d probably be like, if he came to me on a bad day, I’d say, “Really, that’s cool. Wow!” Because I’m no more discerning than the next guy. That’s the sort of thing you have to watch out for during Lent. Now, it’s probably not going to be something deep like that. But remember that the angel is one tricky guy and he will stop at nothing, refrain from nothing, to try to entice you into evil.
A few last things:
Focus on your duties. If you’ve got a job, focus on it. In the monasteries they say, “Work with your hands,” and some of you have the opportunity to do that. That’s good. I find it very helpful; that’s why I garden. It helps you focus. But whatever your job is, whether it’s outside the home, inside the home, whether it’s taking care of the children or anything like that, focus on that and do it to the glory of God and do it well. That should be part of your Lenten effort.
Bear one another’s burdens. Paul says, “Bear one another’s burdens and so fulfill the law of Christ.” So be on the lookout during Lent for somebody who might be having a hard time and doesn’t want to admit it, or somebody who needs some support – I’m not suggesting you do an intervention or anything silly like that – I mean support them, be with them, tell them, “I’m praying for you this Lent; I know it’s your first one,” or “I know you’re fairly new at this,” or “It might be your fortieth one, but I’m with you in this. If you need to talk, talk, we’ll get together, we’ll pray, we’ll study, whatever.” Bear with one another’s burdens. That’s what it means to be a community. And if someone comes to you and does that, don’t get all huffy about it and all offended, “I’m doing fine! Why, what do you think?” Just accept whatever they say. If they’re right, be grateful for it. If they’re wrong, it comes from a pure heart. Don’t worry about it; just ignore it. You don’t need to respond to it.
And love one another. Love one another. That’s what we’re here for. We love Him because He first loved us. But love one another. Support one another. Pray for one another. And so fulfill the law of Christ.
In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, God is One. Amen.