Joel 2:12-19; Matthew 6:1-6, 16-21.
Place, “But you, when you pray, go into your room, and when you have shut your door, pray to your Father who is in the secret place… [W]hen you fast, anoint your head and wash your face, so that you do not appear to men to be fasting, but to your Father who is in the secret place…” (NKJV vv. 6, 17).
Jesus teaches his disciples how they are to pray and fast. The church employs this at the start of Lent; having descended Mt. Transfiguration to earnestly enter in the Way of the cross.
Jesus admonishes against showy displays of personal piety; yet our Ash Wednesday penitential celebration takes its name precisely from imposing ashes marring our appearance. This irony reminds, the church does not command a new legalism; rather that penitence must avoid double-mindedness.
Occasionally Scripture translations require correction. Our ESV Gospel text (printed in the Service bulletin) is more accurately rendered by the NKJV (read to you).
Christians don’t pray or fast “privately”; rather even when alone, our worship and prayer is communal, in the “secret place” of the Father’s presence, where we are in communion with brothers and sisters oriented toward new Zion’s altar, her Most Holy Place of God’s presence in Christ.
Jesus taught us to pray in our plurality: “Our Father… give us… our bread… forgive us… as we forgive… trespass against us… deliver us.” As sons and daughters of God, we pray in our communal identity in Christ, confessed as the fellowship or communion of the saints.
The “secret place” to which Jesus refers is the body of our fellowship in Christ, who is God’s NT Temple (Jn. 2:21). In this “place” and the Way, it is impossible for repentant believers eucharistically united with the sacrificial flesh of Christ to publicly parade individual pieties.
Some may practice a personal fast of one sort or another through-out the Lenten season. In Christian freedom this is salutary; neither commanded nor forbidden, and so best kept to yourself.
Fasting is a mortification that asserts control over our flesh, as Jesus forty days in the desert. A fast may magnify the church’s emblematic ashes, signifying that apart from Christ we are dead in sin. We have no personal boast in either the church’s ashes or in personal fasts.
Gathered at the start of Lenten penitence, the “rite of ashes” does however direct us to the church’s opening Litany, “O Lord, have mercy”. By this liturgical prayer, together, our faces marred with ash, we enter new Zion’s courts, the “secret place” of Presence.
Following the Litany, the Word directs to the inner sanctum of the Father’s abiding, Christ’s atoning sacramental flesh and blood given; secret from unbelievers.
On Mt. Transfiguration, Elijah was guide in the Way to Zion’s “secret place”; we must commence with Jesus at Gethsemane and the cross’ passion. These are the fiery chariot of Jesus’ new exodus for resurrection carriage to the Father (2 Kgs. 2:11).
At Gethsemane Jesus asked his disciples to remain awake as he prayed. Promptly they fell asleep as Jesus’ blood percolated through his skin desiring God relieve him of the wrath to come on account of sin.
Sin is a serious matter and yet sleep accompany our condition; so the church reminds, “Remember you are dust and to dust you shall return.”
We come out of our mothers to spend most of our infancy in feeding and sleep. Our flesh strengthens for a time, then ages and decays, nap-times increase until death takes hold in sleep. All have sinned so that even the Baptized are returned to the ground from which we were formed, a dusty mattress awaiting the resurrection of all flesh.
Today you entered the courts of new Zion, marked by ashes, the token of our common trajectory. Death is God’s judgment on sin. Like Cain, we beseech God’s mercy by an assuring sign.
The mark of Cain, declared criminality, slayer of a brother; and conveyed the sign of sanctuary from vengeance of both man and God. In new Zion,sanctuary is not conveyed by ashes; in the sign of Baptism’s water, blood, and promise of Him who bears our sin and delivers the Spirit of grace.
Church ashes merely visually agree with God’s verdict on sin, “Dust you are and to dust you shall return”; at this accusation we only bear-up by the promise of faith heard in “our room” (Mt. 6:6), the congregation’s “secret place” of prayer and mercy; a sanctuary that welcomes all, yet closed to all but those called to Baptism.
Early church fathers expressed the communal nature of salvation, “one cannot have God as Father unless we have the Church as mother” (Cyprian, 3rd century Bishop of Carthage).
Baptized in the Spirit by water and word we are cleansed. Lord’s Day to Lord’s Day the ashes of our sin are sprinkled with Christ’s blood for forgiveness. Our washing and feeding, open eyes and hearts burn (Luke 24:32) in the gospel knowledge explicated by Christ’s NT house stewards.
Jesus taught about the new place, “In my Father’s house there are many places of abode” (Jn. 14:2). In these abodes, stewards are ordained for Service in the many church “rooms” or congregations. Pastors and deacons steward the church, whom you call to deliver the Father’s blessings.
In the early church following a Sermon, deacons dismissed the unbaptized and catechumens, “to the doors” (“demissa” or mass); the “doors” of the “room” would be “shut”, inviting the Baptizeds’ Sacrament attendance.
Catechumens would then be ushered to a place for instruction in the faith. During the mass the congregation offered prayer for these and the world in participation of the Sacrament.
Then, as now, your stewards bring forth the bounty of this house, the crucified, risen flesh of Christ for forgiveness of sins, the promise of resurrection for the new creation, and every blessing as we are stationed.
Those receiving these holy things are washed of death’s slumbering sand to thanksgiving and praise of heaven’s treasure. Amen.