Wednesday, March 9, 2011

Burning palms, ashes of pain

Today begins Lent, and we begin again in the ashes. As we did last year, members of St. Paul's wrote reflections for each day of Lent, and the reflection for today was written by Doug Vest, who is retired priest from the Diocese of Los Angeles who now lives in Charlottesville.

We've posted all of the reflections on a special blog, and the daily reflection will appear at midnight each day. You can find the blog by clicking HERE. You can also get to it by clicking on the purple Lenten cross on the left.

The readings for Ash Wednesday are Joel 2:1-2,12-17Isaiah 58:1-122 Corinthians 5:20b-6:10Matthew 6:1-6,16-21 and Psalm 103 or 103:8-14.

May you have a blessed Lent. My homily for today is below:

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Ash Wednesday 2011

The ashes are oily and grimy and they smell. 
The ashes came from palm fronds – the palms that we blessed and carried on Palm Sunday a year ago. We carried those palm fronds around this church and sang hymns and carried them into Holy Week. 
Then, many of you saved your palms, maybe in a dresser drawer, or on a mirror, or pinned to a bulletin board. 
The palms dried out, cracked, and turned pale. 
Then many of you brought your palms back here, and on Monday, they were burned.
When palm burns it makes a thick gray smoke that smells like a brush fire, no surprise because palms are a type of grass. 
Many years ago, when I was news reporter, I covered a few huge wild fires in Southern California of the sort that destroy entire neighborhoods, 300 homes at a time, and trap people, sometimes to their deaths. 

The fires spread because palm fronds catch fire and fly through the air like flaming arrows, carried by the intense Santa Ana winds.

In one such fire, in 1980, in San Bernardino, I was nearly trapped, unable to get anywhere, and my eyes froze shut from the smoke. I was rescued by a news photographer and taken to a hospital. Of course, not before he got a few more pictures. 
The smoke of burning palm smells like death to me, and it still brings a pit in my stomach.

The pain and tragedy of the world are in these ashes, and they are a reminder of how quickly life can burn away. 
As we descend into Lent on this Ash Wednesday, we are reminded again that life can be tenuous, that many people live on the edge of living, and that the pain of the world is not far from our doorstep – and for some of you, has crossed your doorstep. 
The ashes remind us again to put first things first. 

First things first are not power and prestige, or titles and prizes, or degrees and social status. 
First things first aren’t houses, cars, and toys. 
All of those things are fleeting, all of that disappears eventually in the ashes. 
First things first: the people we love, the people who love us, the relationships we hold dear.

First things first: our loving God who holds us, pick us up, and is with us even when we don’t see or notice – no matter what, no string attached. 
In a few minutes, we will have ashes smeared on our foreheads to remind us of our own death. We tell ourselves that “it is to dust that we shall return.”
What an odd thing to do. 

Why do we do this? To remind ourselves that we cannot get to the promise of new life without passing through the emptiness of the grave first, whether at the end of our mortal life on earth, or in all of the graves big and small we fall into in this life by our own doing, or through no fault of our own. 

We don’t get to Easter without being lifted from the ashes. 
Think of these ashes as a gift to the heart. 

If we can catch a glimpse of our mortality in the ashes today, maybe we will see more clearly those things that really matter. Maybe we will see that our own death does not separate us from each other. 

Maybe we will see first things first. 
Instead of only seeing only ashes today, maybe we will catch a glimpse of how we are ultimately bound together by the Christ who promises we will get out of whatever hole we are in. 

Traditionally Lent is a time of austerity, and we “give up” something for Lent. Often, we give up something trivial, like chocolate. 

But maybe we should give up something more important. Maybe we should give up that which gets in our way of seeing God and seeing each other. 
The crucial sentence in the words of Jesus is the last: “For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.”

See Lent as a gift to the heart. Look at Lent as a break, a forty-day Sabbath – a time of slowing down and being extra intentional about taking care of yourself. 

See Lent as a time for rest, and prayer, and being with the ones you love. 

See Lent as a time to take care of yourself: the health of your body, mind and spirit.
And see Lent as a time for shedding away that which gets in your way of seeing and touching God. 
Lent should not be an ordeal, but a true gift to the heart. And we can do this one-day at a time, starting here, together, now. 
Take time every day this Lent to look inside yourself. See again truly who you are, and whose you are, and who loves you unconditionally. Repent, a word that means “turn around,” and see what’s right in front of you. 
And then look outside yourself: Look for the Christ in everyone you meet and in everything you do – and look for the Christ in even in the ashes.

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