Christ Church Cathedral, Montreal
A Meditation for Ash Wednesday
By The Very Rev Michael J.Pitts, Dean
As we begin Lent, this year, three words seem to me to present the themes of the season, Temptation, Renunciation and Repentance. But as we delve into Scripture and the Christian tradition, each of those words has a rather different meaning from the way in which we commonly use it.
Temptation, in common use, means enticement. But in Scripture, the one who tempts most often, is God, and God certainly does not entice us. When God tempts, what he is doing is testing, testing the faith and obedience of his people. When we pray each day “Lead us not into temptation” the word takes on an even more special meaning, for what is referred to here is the great eschatological time of trial, when the earth is shaken, when good and evil are revealed, when we have to make choices and decisions of ultimate and final importance for ourselves and for society.
Renunciation, likewise, is far more than the giving up of chocolates or cigarettes. Its fuller meaning is made plain in the ancient word of the baptismal rite.
“Do you renounce Satan and all the spiritual forces of wickedness that rebel against God?” “I renounce them.”
“Do you renounce the evil powers of this world which corrupt and destroy the creatures of God?” “I renounce them.”
Do you renounce all sinful desires that draw you from the love of God?” “I renounce them.”
Renunciation is refusal to allow our thinking, belief and lifestyle to be dominated by the ways of this world.
Repentance in the Christian Scripture is more than feeling sorry for the peccadilloes of everyday life. Metanoia is about a total change of direction, it is about re-framing ourselves for a new life in a new world.
The Ashes of Ash Wednesday, placed on our foreheads, are a sign of this repentance, this renunciation and this struggle with temptation. But how do we give content to what they signify? In two of our readings (Isaiah 58:1-12, Matthew 6:1-21) Matthew and Isaiah give us rather conflicting advice (a problem which often happens in our scriptures). Matthew tells us that we should not be so concerned with the external and visible things, but with building a true inner relationship with God. Isaiah on the other hand tells us that the point is not to be religious, but to serve the poor and needy.
The problem of these different directions is partly solved by saying that the one which is applicable to us depends on where we actually are. If your life is highly practical and committed to others, then look to Matthew. If you think you are very religious and spiritual, then look hard at Isaiah. But perhaps it is better to say that for each person seeking to follow Christ in today’s world, both are true. The heart of the Christian faith is the building up of an intense and intimate relationship with God. But if such a relationship does not result in a compassionate life and healthy, loving relationships with humanity and creation, then it is a false religion of a false god.
So Lent, I believe, challenges us in two ways:
First we are to go into our room secretly (Matthew 6:6), and put more effort into prayer, worship, meditation and to the building up of an inner and holy life.
Secondly we are to discern what changes we need to make to our lifestyles and attitudes so that we can live life in a way which gives bead to the hungry, clothes to the naked, a home to the homeless and freedom and justice to the oppressed (Isaiah 58:6-7).
I wish you a most holy and fruitful Lent.
The Very Rev Michael J.Pitts, Dean Christ Church Cathedral
A Meditation for Ash Wednesday 2002
"Remember you are dust and to dust you shall return."