Ash Wednesday, 2021
Joel 2:1-2, 12-17; Psalm 103:8-18; 2 Cor. 5:20B-6:10; Matt. 6:1-6, 16-21
Early in the 5th century, a monk by the name of John Cassian sat at his desk and started to write. He had learned a lot about the spiritual life—and so his bishop asked him to write down what he had learned. And so he did. He tells a story about travelling with his friend Germanus, the two of them seeking the wisdom of the abbas who had fled the cities and the towns, in search of God in the deserts of Northern Egypt.
The two monks first find abba Moses, and sat at his feet. Except that abba Moses wouldn’t talk. “… we were tearfully begging for an edifying word from that abba,” says John, but eventually “since we were eager to be thoroughly instructed by him, he finally began to speak, worn out by our pleading.”
And what abba Moses talks to John and his friend Germanus about, in part,
is why one would go about doing such strange things as fasting, or acts of mercy toward the poor, or reading and meditating on Scripture, or staying up late persevering in prayer.
And it’s this that I’ll speak about briefly tonight—drawing from those conversations with abba Moses, and as we ourselves embark upon the season of Lent—why do we take part in such practices?
Well the answer is rather simple: we do it for, and out of, love.
One of the first things that abba Moses wanted to know was what those to young monks were seeking. “The kingdom of heaven,” say Germanus and John. But that the kingdom of God is an end, says abba Moses. That’s where we are heading. But how does one get there? To answer that, abba Moses talked about farmers.
What a farmer seeks is a secure and comfortable life. But to get that secure and comfortable life, a farmer will clear the fields, pull up weeds, and toil away in planting and harvesting. And for abba Moses, the spiritual life is a lot like that. For us, as we seek the kingdom of heaven, we work and toil in a different way—instead of pulling weeds and tilling fields, the work set out for us is fasting, spending time in prayer, meditating on Scripture, and acts of mercy.
This is what gives us purity of heart, says abba Moses. These are the things that make our hearts ready to love. And if we are ready and able to love, and to love God above all things, we are preparing ourselves for our end, for what we seek, and where we are headed: the kingdom of heaven. And as all these efforts pass away with this world, that love that will remain.
It makes for a good test, doesn’t it. Let’s say you’ve decided to fast from coffee. But the lack of caffeine makes you entirely ill-tempered. You may well be taming a bodily appetite, tackling a vice in order that you would grow in love of God (rather than your stomach). But are you growing in love of God if you’re little more than a grump toward everyone?
Let’s say you’ve decided that you will freely give alms to the poor because money has become an idol for you, a means of control over others. But giving away your money only makes you complain more about how others will spend it.
Or that you never got around, during the day, to saying the prayers you’re committed to saying. So you stay up so late catching up with your prayers, that you can’t help with getting the kids ready for school in the morning.
You get the picture? Be sure that you are being led in love; and if not, ease up a bit. A Lenten discipline is something you take up in order to tackle some vice that keeps you from the love of God. Like fasting, if you find that food is in control of you; or acts of mercy, if money is in control of your time; or taking time to pray or read Scripture, because your entertainments are less than godly.
These are things you do to bring you closer to God in love, and more ready to contemplate God in love. Disciplines such as these aren’t designed to make you miserable, or just as importantly, your loved ones miserable—though they may reveal some unpleasant things about yourself and your attachments. That’s certainly uncomfortable.
Make sure you are clear that the scope of such disciplines—as you pull the weeds out of your heart, as you till the ground of your heart—is that you are, through such disciplines, turning to God in love.
So I would encourage you to choose a Lenten discipline. And no, you don’t have to take a trip to the deep deserts of Northern Egypt to do that. But you can re-orient yourself, and turn once again in love toward God. To pick up your cross in the knowledge that the cross given to you will be easy and light. Purify your heart, pull up some weeds and till that soil like a farmer who has eyes on an easy life once the farming is done; purify your heart that you might grow in love of God, that you would be ready for God’s kingdom—a kingdom where all this may pass away, but for love, which will to remain.
A kingdom that is given as a gift, a gift of love from a Lord who has first loved us—that we too would grow again in love for him.
The Revd Dr Preston DS Parsons