05 March 2014

Homily for Ash Wednesday 2014

You may not recognize it from the snow and ice over the weekend, but spring is here. Oh, I know that the equinox isn’t for a few weeks yet, but forecasters talk about meteorological seasons. Meteorological spring begins on March 1 by their logic, and so if you permit me, I am going to take the liberty of declaring today to be the first day of Ecclesiastical spring.

Along with entering into spring comes the impetus to engage in some cleaning. Trust me, in a few weeks, when the weather actually catches up with what the forecasters are calling this time, you’ll see plenty of ads for big box retailers promoting their spring cleaning lines. They’ll become as ubiquitous as the ads for Filet ‘o Fish sandwiches are today. Mops and brooms and organizing solutions will go flying off the shelves as bachelors and housewives, dads and retirees all seek to make good on the promise of a sense of accomplishment, a clean house, and perhaps some organization in their lives.

What you may be unaware of is that spring cleaning has among its roots a deeply religious reason – the requirement of purging all leaven from ones’ home during the feast of Pesach, what we know today as the Jewish Passover. This means that every trace of yeast, all leavened products… everything that is not classified as Passover Kosher – yes, there are two kinds of kosher! – have to be purged. For the serious Jewish family, spring cleaning is a religious act. The fridge and stove are pulled out, crevice tools reach into areas so finite that it seems impossible for a bread crumb to have gotten there… but it’s cleaned nonetheless! Special pots and pans are brought out. Passover-only dinnerware is used. Some families even go so far as to have a Passover-only stove, oven, and fridge! Even the kids, on the night before Passover, get to go hunting for the last bit of leaven. All that, because they don’t want to run even the remotest risk of having any leaven in their homes for the Passover and the subsequent Feast of Unleavened Bread.

But why?

Biblically, leaven is used repeatedly as an illustration for sin. In the Old Testament leaven is consistently used to represent sin, falsehood, and evil…In the New Testament, leaven was used by Jesus himself to represent the false teachings of the Pharisees and the lack of faith on the part of the Sadducees Saint Paul boldly challenges the Corinthian Church to celebrate the feast, ‘not with the old bread of wickedness and evil, but with the unleavened bread of sincerity and truth.’

I am not suggesting to you that you need to go home this afternoon and purge out your loaves of Wonder Bread or toss your yeast packets into the garbage… but I am suggesting that you take today as the chance to embark on a journey towards Eastertide in which you will go into those crevices, the places perhaps you don’t think to examine for sin, and to challenge yourself to allow Christ into those areas in your life.

We need to take time to reflect on our sinfulness because, to be honest, sometimes our sins have become either so completely hidden in the cracks, or have blended so surreptitiously  into our lives, that we no longer take notice of them.

I grew up with my grandmother. Until the day she had a stroke and went into the hospital for the last time, she smoked… and for most of the years I lived with her, you couldn’t tell the difference between her and the 6:15 bound for Topeka. After she died, when I decided to sell the trailer she had left me, I went to go clean it up. There was plenty of stuff that was in obvious need of removal… her old clothes, kitchen supplies, Kleenexes under furniture… the obvious things. But I hadn’t been in the house for a while, and something just didn’t smell right. So I decided to wipe down the walls, thinking that, perhaps, some mold or something had grown. What came off the walls was truly disgusting. Decades of smoke had clung to the walls, subtly discoloring EVERYTHING. I grew up in the house. I moved in on the day she closed on the house… I lived there for fourteen years before I left for work and school… I came back and lived there for three more years as her health declined… and I had become so completely accustomed to the discoloration of the walls, the curtains – the white curtains that I always thought were yellow! – that I was shocked… simply shocked.

My brothers and sisters, there are things in our lives that we know we need to clean up. There are many sins we take to the Lord, fully realizing our need for his mercy and grace in them. And yet, how often do we go deeper? Do we allow ourselves to settle for mediocrity in our efforts to clean up our lives? If we do, I can promise you, with absolute certainty, that the things we refuse to examine, the crevices we refuse to clean, will eventually begin to quietly erode at our life of faith.

In this Lenten season, therefore, as we gather today to receive the sign of ashes and to be nourished in Word and Sacrament, I invite each of you to observe this time with great devotion and attention to your spiritual needs. I invite you to seek out the counsel of a wise and loving pastor if you find yourself struggling – with sins that are great, or sins that are small. Above all, I invite you to reinvigorate your relationship with the only one who can possibly make anything out of what we do here today, Jesus the Christ, who died for our justification; the one who sends the Spirit into our midst to convict us, to apply mercy, and to draw us ever closer to himself.

To God be glory, now and forever. Amen!

All original material (C) 2007-2010 by Father Robert Lyons.

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