Sermon preached by Fr Daniel Trott
on Wednesday 26th February 2020 (Ash Wednesday)
Isaiah 58.1–12; Ps. 51.1–18; 2 Cor. 5.20b–6.10; John 8.1–11
On Ash Wednesday we begin a 96-day journey. We start with the 46 days of Lent (40 weekdays and 6 Sundays), beginning today and ending with Holy Week, and then we have the 50 days of Easter, beginning on Easter Day, taking us 40 days to Ascension Day and then a further 10 to the Day of Pentecost.
During these 96 days we’re given a short summary of Jesus’s ministry: on the First Sunday of Lent we hear the story of Jesus’s temptation in the wilderness, which Matthew, Mark, and Luke tell us immediately followed his baptism. Then over the next few weeks we hear parts of his teaching, and some of the things he did. On Palm Sunday we hear of his entry into Jerusalem, and towards the end of Holy Week we recall the Last Supper, his betrayal by Judas, his crucifixion, and his burial.
Then at the Easter Vigil and again on Easter Day we celebrate the resurrection, and throughout the first 40 days of Easter we remember his appearances to his disciples, and think about what it means to know the risen Christ. On Ascension Day we remember his returning to the Father, and on the Day of Pentecost these 96 days come to a close as we celebrate the gift of the Holy Spirit.
But these 96 days aren’t just about remembering what Jesus did and what happened to him. As Christians, our lives are patterned after Jesus. His death and resurrection, which we celebrate at the centre of these 96 days, provides a pattern for us, one that is most dramatically enacted in baptism.
Just as Jesus died and rose again, in baptism we die to our old self, all the things about ourselves that are best left behind, and we invite God to re-create us, to make us into a new person. In the earliest baptisms (and in mine), someone went down into the water, drowning the old self with its sin, and then came up out of the water, rising to new life with Christ. And because of this ‘dying and rising’ symbolism, the most popular time for baptisms was, unsurprisingly, Easter.
Lent was originally a time of preparation for those who were being baptized at Easter. At the beginning of Lent they were admitted to the catechumenate (the group of candidates), and began fasting in preparation for their baptism at Easter. Later it was decided that everyone should participate in the fast, and it became a preparation for Easter.
But why? What’s the point in all joining in the fast and going through baptism preparation again, year after year? We’ve been baptized, we’re living the risen life, we don’t sin any more!
And that’s the point, of course. Although becoming a Christian, or being baptized, or being confirmed – or whatever significant moment you can identify in your journey of faith – although it represented a new start, it wasn’t the end of the story. None of us changed overnight from the old self into the new self, from a sinful person into a righteous person. We need to do it again and again. The post communion prayer on Easter Day asks God that we might ‘die daily to sin’. Conversion is a continual process, and one that’s never finished this side of the grave.
Because of this, we confess our sins at every eucharist, once a week for most of us, but once a year we re-enact the sequence of events surrounding our baptism on a larger scale. On Ash Wednesday we turn to Christ again, expressing sorrow for our sins with the ancient symbol of ash. Through Lent we pray more diligently and study the Bible (perhaps on a Lent course), learning how to be more of a Christian. At Easter we recall our baptism and commit once more to live the risen life. And at Pentecost we pray again for the gift of the Spirit.
So today’s fast, today’s penitence, is not an empty religious ceremony. It’s not a false act of penitence such as Isaiah was criticizing in our first reading: a formal lament, an outward show of contrition designed to persuade God to be kinder to us, while we continue to oppress others and ignore their needs. Today is a reminder of the decision each of us made when we became a Christian. Today is a re-commitment to ‘turn away from sin and be faithful to Christ’, to die to the old self and live the risen life. Today it is as if we are asked, as adult candidates for baptism are asked, ‘Do you wish to be baptized?’ And hopefully we respond, ‘I do.’
We’ll need to do it again next year, but that doesn’t matter. The process is never complete – but God asks us to commit to the process. That’s what following Jesus is – not being perfect, but wanting to be perfect. As we enter these 96 days of Lent and Easter, let’s embrace again the drama of our baptism, asking God to help us follow Christ, one day at a time.
Let us pray.
God of Life,
who for our redemption gave your only-begotten Son
to the death of the cross,
and by his glorious resurrection
have delivered us from the power of our enemy:
grant us so to die daily to sin,
that we may evermore live with him
in the joy of his risen life;
through Jesus Christ our Lord.