2021-02-17 Ash Wednesday
Grace, mercy and peace be to you from God our Father and our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Amen.
The three legged stool. If you grew up milking cows you remember these! If you didn’t, you might have run across them in a work shop or in an Irish pub around the bar. They are truly the chair for the worker. There is no back on which to recline. No armrests to lean on. Just a simple “luxury” helping someone get off their feet but still with a working purpose. Three legged stools were designed for production and work. They were stable. You can’t imagine milking a cow or doing shop work while trying to concentrate sitting on a chair with two legs or one leg. That would be crazy! Instead, the three legs working together give a person stability and a rock solid foundation for getting the job done.
Lent is very much like this three legged stool. Jesus lays this out for us in our traditional Bible reading for Ash Wednesday. He says “when you give to the needy,” (6:2) “when you pray,” (6:5) and “when you fast” (6:16). He lays out the very foundation for our Lenten journey. Three legs that make for a solid base on which to build. Three legs that make for a solid basis for our Lenten journey to the cross. Almsgiving. Prayer. Fasting. They are like faith, hope and love or Father, Son and Holy Spirit - a classical ‘trinity’ of greatness that leads to success.
But why these three things? Why does Jesus hone in on these three aspects of spiritual growth for the season of Lent? Well, it’s because these three legs hold up repentance. If we are to ever get to the heart of the spirit of Lent, it’s all about repenting of our sins, doing that 180º turn away from sin and returning to the Lord our God. He is gracious and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love. If we are to embrace God, we must do so in repentance. We confess that we certainly are poor, miserable sinners. That we have sinned against God by accident and even on purpose. We do not deserve His grace, love or mercy. And yet, God still loves us. He has shown this so clearly in sending Jesus to shed His blood for us on that old rugged cross. And now, He says pick up our own cross and follow Him. Repent of our sins. Turn away from evil and embrace the goodness of Christ our Lord.
But how do we do this, practically speaking? How do we repent? How do we turn? Well, it’s like that old three legged milking stool. We have almsgiving, prayer and fasting to hold up the effort and get the job done. Each one of these Lenten disciplines becomes a remedy to our sinful nature. Each one targets a specific part of our nature and our sinful passions and seeks to squash them. Like a tree pruner or vine dresser selectively makes his cuts to get rid of dead wood that doesn’t produce, these 3 lenten disciplines likewise get rid of that which burden us and instead makes us healthier and more productive in a spirit of repentance.
“When you give to the needy” (6:2) Jesus says. A more literal translation would be “when you do mercy” or “when you give alms.” Notice that none of these disciplines start out “if you give” or “if you pray” or “if you fast”. No our Lord assumes His followers will be doing these things. And so He says “when.” When you give. Almsgiving is the first leg of the Lenten stool because by nature we are stingy and self-centered. What is the remedy to stinginess? Giving. And we see our Lord model this for us so plainly as He willingly gives everything for us, even His very life on the cross. He dies that we may live. He gives everything so that we may have life and have life abundantly. Because Jesus has done this, the Christian’s response is one of giving – all the time but especially in Lent. We think to His teaching on the widow’s might. She places into the offering her two small copper coins and Jesus says “Truly I tell you, this poor widow put in more than all of them for they all from their surplus gave, but she from her poverty put in all she had to live on” (LK 21:4).
Giving is the remedy of stinginess because it firmly trusts that God will provide. This is a great area of sin in all of our lives when we think that we can ever exhaust the giving nature of God. Everything in the universe belongs to Him and He freely gives to all from His goodness and mercy. Likewise we as His children. Be rich in your giving because it is always God’s blessings you are doling out. Jesus warns about giving to a fanfare. No trumpets. No big flashy campaigns. Just give so that you “do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, so that your giving may be in secret” (MT 6:3-4). God knows what we have been up to, even in secret. If our giving is likewise done in secret, a heavenly reward waits for the giver just as an earthly blessing blesses the recipient.
“When you pray” (6:5) Jesus says. What is prayer? It is a struggle for most people I’m confident. Why? Because our sinful nature always wants to push God away from us. Likewise the demons, they seek to drag us away from God and pull us back to the darkness. The ancient church fathers describe prayer as the movement of the heart towards God. It is “a participation in the Divine nature” as St. Peter writes (2Pet 1:4). Prayer, in the words of St. Theophan the Recluse, is the breath of our soul. Prayer then becomes united to our very spiritual life - without it we are spiritually dead and lost in darkness.
Prayer is conversation with God. It’s how we talk with Him. It’s how we listen. Too often though our prayers treat God like a vending machine or like He is a Walmart. I have my shopping list of requests that I run through in 3 minutes and that’s my prayers for the day. But imagine if we treated our human relationships this way, only telling our spouse or kids or parents that we want things. How shallow and one sided that would be! It ought to be more like a relationship when you were young and first in love. You think of that person every minute of every day. You long to be in that person’s presence. You want to talk to that person all the time. This is the relationship and the prayer we should have with God. Again this isn’t for public consumption, like the hypocrites and pharisees as Jesus warns, but rather behind closed doors, personal and private.
And finally, “when you fast” (6:16) Jesus says. Fasting is a means of keeping the sinful nature in check using the body. Often we think of “giving something up for Lent” as our fasting. You love chocolate and so you give it up until Easter. But really, it’s all for naught if it doesn’t come with an inner fasting, a fasting of the soul. It’s possible to give up all rich foods for Lent but still be a glutton and drunkard of the soul. If we let ourselves focus on imagined or real hurts, the wrongs done to us, all those people who have wronged us and our anger we allow hatred to fester and build up inside of us. Then we would have a gluttonous soul that is doing anything but fasting.
Jesus likewise commands that this third leg of the stool ought to be done in secret. Ashes from tonight are to be washed off in remembrance of our Baptism as we anoint our heads and wash our faces (6:17) so as to not draw the attention of the world. It drives us further to repentance like the prodigal son who walked away from the pigs - our lives of sin - and returned to his father. May our God and Father bless you this Lententide as your repentance is supported by this three legged stool of grace and mercy. Amen!