Once a year, as the seasons turn, we return to some of the basics of walking in God’s ways. We remember basic spiritual disciplines offered to us in scripture and organized for us by tradition. In the exhortation for Ash Wednesday we are invited to these five disciplines: first to self-examination and repentance, second to self-denial and fasting, third to almsgiving and works of mercy, fourth to scripture reading and fifth to a renewal of prayer. Today we will consider each of these.
To begin let us consider the invitation to self-examination and repentance. The Book of Homilies sermon on this topic lays out four parts to this discipline. First, when we look at our hearts and our lives the Holy Spirit will give us a sadness, and we will feel true sorrow over our sins and contrition in our hearts. Second we are to take our sins and our sorrow and giving up all pretense and pride lay them before God our Father. No reservations, no excuses, no explanations belong here, only sorrow and truth. A broken and contrite spirit our God will not despise (Psalm 51:17). The third step in repentance is remembering in that place of vulnerability and sorrow the promises of God, the free pardon he offers us, and the remission of sin purchased for us by our Saviour’s precious blood poured forth on the cross. This is why we say the comfortable words after confession, if any sin we have an advocate before the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous, and he is the full payment for our sins (1 John 2:1-2). The final step in repentance is the bringing forth of the fruits worthy of repentance, amending our lives, turning from our wicked ways. This comes not by our power alone but by the mercy of God and the movement of a living faith within us. In summary when we repent, we look at our brokenness and weep over how great it is, we bring that brokenness and those tears before God, we remember his promises and lean upon him and his forgiveness, and by his power we change and transform our lives.
JC Ryle puts it this way: If we have already repented in time past, let us go on repenting to the end of our lives. There will always be sins to confess and infirmities to deplore. So long as we are in our unresurrected bodies. Let us repent more deeply and humbly ourselves, more thoroughly, every year. Let every returning birthday find us hating sin more, and loving Christ more.
The second discipline we are invited to return to is fasting and self-denial. Jesus assumes that as his people we will fast (Matthew 6:16, Matthew 9:15). Lancelot Andrewes observes that there are two kinds of biblical fast, the fast of David where one eats nothing from sundown of one day to sundown of the next, and the fast of Daniel when one eats only for sustenance for a sustained period of time, forsaking pleasure from what we eat (2 Sam 3:35, Daniel 10:3). Fasting is about denying ourselves, turning from the world and abiding with Christ. Andrewes points out that it is a chastening of the body, a chastening of the flesh that we promise to turn from in our baptism. It is a physical way of engaging with a spiritual reality, we are called continually to be refined as silver is refined, the waste wasting away, so that our flesh no longer lives as much as Christ’s life lives in us (Galatians 2:20).
In Rev. Robert Capon’s culinary reflection (The Supper of the Lamb) he puts it this way: We will by our fasting be delivered from gourmandaise. The secular, for all its goodness, does not defend itself well against mindless or perpetual consumption. It cries out to be offered by abstinence as well as by use; to be appreciated not simply absorbed. Hunger remains the best sauce. Beyond that though it cries out to be offered as a higher offering still. The real secret of fasting is not that it is a simple way to keep one’s weight down but that it is a mysterious way of lifting creation into the Supper of the Lamb. It is not a little excursion into fashionable shape but a major entrance into the fasting, the agony and the passion by which the Incarnate Word restores all things to the goodness God finds in them. It is as much an act of prayer as prayer itself and in an affluent society it may also be the most meaningful of all the practices of religion.
I say remember this. Jesus fasted in the wilderness and resisted the world, the flesh and the devil. Our only hope of resistance is being united together with Christ’s resistance.
The third discipline we are called back to is almsgiving. Almsgiving is the supplying those in need with what they need, works of mercy. It is to give thanks for what God has entrusted us with and to use it to be merciful like he is merciful. It is all well and good to give to local charities that do this work but I will say a few things in favour of going and meeting those in need personally, talking to them about what they need and helping them. First, in meeting a person in need, in looking poverty in the face you see yourself more accurately, you are they, you are a beggar with desperate needs for your soul’s survival and your eternal security. To see the least, the last and the lost is to see yourself. Second, to see Christ. St. John Chrysostom says that if we cannot see Christ in the most desperate of human faces we will not see him in the altar chalice. Third, Jesus has given you mercy that you have not deserved, you were made in his image, you are to become that mercy in all of its awkwardness and earnestness. These are things worked out in us as we give alms.
Fourth we are called back to the basics of scripture reading. These are the Words of Eternal life. Do not say to yourself you are too busy. Where else shall we go said Peter, you have the Words of eternal life (John 6)? May our hearts so see this and so cling to God’s Word. As we withdraw from the world, the flesh and the devil may we be filled with the Word of God that prepares us for the resurrection on the last day. All Scripture is inspired by God and is useful to teach us what is true and to make us realize what is wrong in our lives. It corrects us when we are wrong and teaches us to do what is right (1 Timothy 3:16). Let us not walk along blindly, let us go forth with a candle, in the light of Christ. Let there not be, as Spurgeon says, enough dust on our bibles to write the word damnation.
And finally, we are called to a renewal of prayer. The veil is torn. We need no animal sacrifice to approach our God. When we pray, we join Jesus who is already interceding for us in heaven. Let us go boldly, let us run hastily, and let us come to a Father who longs to receive us in his presence, to hear of our concerns. In prayer the story of our lives are carried up into the holiness of God. In prayer the power and mercy of God pours forth into our lives. In prayer we are carried, have fellowship, have loving correction and shaping, have a foretaste of eternity. So to conclude I will just read for us what the Anglican Catechism says about prayer:
My dear children, know well that you are not able to do these things yourself. You cannot do what God calls you to or serve him without his grace and help. So we all must learn, at all times, to ask for help from him. We have the great joy and privilege of calling upon him in prayer. So let us pray together, the prayer Jesus teaches us:
Our Father, which art in heaven, Hallowed be thy Name; Thy kingdom come; Thy will be done in earth, as it is in heaven: Give us this day our daily bread; And forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive them that trespass against us; And lead us not into temptation, But deliver us from evil; For thine is the kingdom, the power, and the glory, For ever and ever. Amen. May it be so
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