Ps. 51; Joel 2:12-19; Matthew 6:1-6, 16-21.
Secret, “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 how his disciples are to pray and fast. Jesus having descended Mt. Transfiguration; the church employs this instruction at the start of Lent as we earnestly enter into 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 that mar appearances. This irony reminds, the church does not command a new legalism; rather that our penitence must avoid being double-minded.
Christians don’t pray or fast “privately”; rather even when alone, our worship is communal, in the “secret place” of the Father’s presence, in communion with brothers and sisters oriented toward new Zion’s altar, her Holy Place of God’s presence in Christ.
Jesus taught us to pray in a singular plurality: “Our Father… give us… our bread… forgive us… as we forgive… trespass against us… deliver us.” As children of God, we pray in Christ, confessed in the fellowship of the saints.
The “secret place” to which Jesus refers is our communion in Christ, God’s NT Temple (Jn. 2:21). In this “place” it is impossible that repentant believers united in Christ to parade their individual pieties. Through-out the Lenten season some may practice a personal fast. In Christian freedom this is salutary; neither commanded nor forbidden; so best kept to yourself.
The point of fasting is the flesh’s mortification, asserting control over source of much sinful desire. Jesus without sin, nevertheless was tempted in the desert; there he mortified his human flesh, perfected on the cross.
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 personal fasts.
Gathered at the start of Lent’s penitence, the “rite of ashes” does however direct us to the church’s opening Litany, “O Lord, have mercy”. By this prayer, together, our faces marred with ash, we enter new Zion’s court, 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; secret from unbelievers.
On Mt. Transfiguration, the appearance of Elijah, the passion-prophet, guides to our “secret place”. We begin with Jesus at Gethsemane to the cross. This is the fiery chariot of his exodus; his 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 ongoing mortification on account of sin.
Sin is a serious matter and yet sleep accompanies our condition; so, the church this evening is here to shake us awake, “Remember you are dust and to dust you shall return.”
We come out of our mothers to spend our infancy in feeding and sleep. Our flesh strengthens for a time, ages and decays, nap-times increase until death takes hold. All have sinned so that even the Baptized are returned to the ground from which we were formed, a dusty mattress.
This evening you entered the court of Zion, marked with ashes, a token of our common trajectory. Death is God’s judgment on sin. Like Cain, we beseech God’s mercy for a sign of assurance.
The mark of Cain, declared criminality, brother-slayer; and sign of sanctuary from vengeance. Zion’s, sanctuary is not conveyed by ashes; rather Baptism, water, blood, and promise of Him who bears our sin and delivers the Spirit of grace.
Church ashes are a visual agreement 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 the congregation’s “secret place” (Mt. 6:6) of prayer and mercy. Church fathers emphasized the 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 sin’s ashes are sprinkled with Christ’s blood for forgiveness. Our washing and feeding open eyes and hearts to burn (Luke 24:32) in gospel knowledge from Christ’s house stewards.
Jesus taught about his 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 “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 “secret room” were “shut”, inviting only the Baptized to sacramental 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.
Then, as now, your stewards bring forth the bounty of this house, the crucified, risen flesh of Christ for forgiveness, the promise of resurrection for the new creation, and every blessing, ours in our station. Amen.