“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 where and how his disciples are to pray and fast. The church employs this Reading at the beginning of Lent. We are now descended from the height of Sunday’s revelation on the Mt. of Transfiguration. We continue to journey with Jesus in the Way of the cross.
Jesus admonishes his followers against showy displays of personal piety; yet our Ash Wednesday penitential celebration takes its name precisely from the Christian ritual of imposing ashes that mar our liturgical appearance.
The seeming contradiction is irony that drives those with legalist mentalities “around the bend”, reminding that Jesus is not with his church to command a new moral code; instead the avoidance of double-mindedness.
In working with Scripture translations, occasionally it is necessary to make corrections. Our ESV Gospel text (printed in your Service bulletin) is more accurate by the NKJV, i.e., Christians don’t pray or fast “privately”, or “secretly”, apart from others; rather we worship and pray in community in a place, specifically “in the secret place” of the Father’s presence.
Christian prayer is never an individual affair, even our personal devotions; we are always in communion with brothers and sisters oriented toward the Church’s altar, her Most Holy Place of physical and confessed “real presence” of God in Christ.
Thus, Jesus taught us our prayer in Christian plurality: “Our Father… give us… our bread… forgive us… as we forgive… trespass against us… deliver us.” As sons and daughters of the Most High God, we pray according to our new identity; in Christ, a communion in Eucharistic feeding and worship.
Our “secret place” is the Body of Christ, the NT Temple (Jn. 2:21). In this “place” it is quite impossible for repentant believers in union with the sacrificial flesh of Christ to publically parade or boast of individual piety.
Some of you may be practicing a personal fast of one sort or another through the season of Lent. This is a salutary piety in Christian freedom, neither commanded nor forbidden, and as such kept to yourself.
Fasting in Christ mortifies our flesh, asserting control over it, as Jesus did forty days in the desert. Personal fasting magnifies the significance of the church’s emblematic ashes that apart from our gracious Lord we are dead. We have no boast in either the church’s ashes or personal fasts.
As the church gathers at the beginning of Lent, our ashes direct us to the church’s Litany prayer, “O Lord, have Mercy”, which is our one thing needful from God in Christ.
In liturgical prayer we enter into “the secret place”. The Liturgy of the Word (Readings and Sermon) directs us to the abiding place, the Sacrament of Christ’s flesh and blood; yet veiled and hidden from unbelievers.
Last Sunday, Elijah appeared with Jesus on the Mt. of Transfiguration directing our attention to the “secret place”, Gethsemane; the “place” commencing our Lord’s Passion.
Jesus asked his disciples to remain awake as he prayed to the Father. Promptly they fell asleep while Jesus’ blood percolated through his skin desiring that God relieve him of the wrath to come for sin.
Sleep always accompanies our sin condition, doesn’t it? “Remember you are dust and to dust you shall return.” We arrive out of our mother’s wombs spending most of our infancy in gifted feeding and sleep.
As our flesh strengthens, ages, and decays of vitality, naptimes increase until bodies sleep in death. All have sinned so that even the Baptized are returned to the ground from which God formed us, a dusty mattress awaiting the promised resurrection of all flesh.
Today you have entered the precincts of the church, requesting to be marked with ashes betokening the bedtime trajectory. Death is God’s judgment on sin, promised to Adam and Eve.
We are like our brother Cain, beseeching God’s mercy and receiving saving mark. The mark of Cain at once declared his criminality, slayer of his brother, and betokened Sanctuary from the vengeance of God and man. Today our Sanctuary resides in Baptism’s promise of Christ’s salvation.
There is no Sanctuary by an imposition of ashes; they are only a visual confession in this house of God’s justice on our sin, common to brothers and sisters, “Dust you are and to dust you shall return”.
But by faith in God’s word you have entered “your room”, the Christian congregation, our secret place of prayer and of God’s responsive mercy; a Sanctuary welcoming all, yet a communion closed to all but those called to Baptism.
Praying in “your room”, does not direct to a personal “little closet”, as some translations have it, where people pray in the private recesses of their own hearts. Such a “me and Jesus” mentality is unknown to the church’s corporate communion.
The early church fathers understood the communal nature of our salvation in Christ, that we “cannot have God as father unless we have the Church as mother” (Cyprian, 3rd century Bishop of Carthage).
Baptized with the Spirit in water and word we are cleansed. Daily (Lord’s Day to Lord’s Day) the ashes of sin’s dust and death are sprinkled with the blood of Christ crucified for our forgiveness. In our washing and feeding, eyes are opened and hearts burn (Luke 24:32) in the revelation delivered from Christ’s household stewards.
Jesus taught the Apostles of his new “place”, that “In my Father’s house there are many places of abode” (Jn. 14:2). In Christ one discerns God’s new Temple in his body (Jn. 2:19). In the “place” of our abode with God, stewards are ordained for service in the church’s many “rooms”, “mansions”, or congregations. These stewards are your pastors and deacons whom you have called to deliver the Father’s blessings.
Following this evening’s Sermon that invites a closer communion into the Holy Place; pastoral stewards of the ancient church would call for the “doors” of the “room” to be “shut” (“demissa” or mass).
Deacons would then usher the unbaptized catechumens out to a place for further instruction in the faith. The congregation would then pray for these and for the world orientated in the Sacrament to be received.
Then, as now, your stewards bring forth and deliver the bounty of this place, the crucified and risen flesh of Christ for the forgiveness of sins, the promise of resurrection, and every blessing for each in our various stations.
Those who receive the holy things of God’s New Temple revealed to opened eyes, are washed of death’s slumbering sand in Eucharistic thanksgiving and received as heaven’s treasure. Amen.