Ashen Crosses and Jesus’ Way of Prayer

A Reflection on Ash Wednesday and the Lord’s Prayer

The key texts the reflection this Ash Wednesday were Isaiah 58:5-8 and Matthew 6:1-21. The Lord’s Prayer is the focus of our preaching during Lent this year. Daily verses and brief reflections related to our theme can be found at our Lent blogsite.

The meaning of ashes

To be honest I would love to have a conversation on what this liturgy means to each of us. The pastors at our text study yesterday spent some time sharing our own experiences of the ashes. That is one of the things about the liturgies of the church: they speak to us in different ways – and they speak to us in different ways at different times in our lives.

In the course of that conversation, yesterday, I found myself thinking that this thing with the ashes is not just an echo of an ancient ritual; it is a profound reminder that we are creatures. There is something more here than just the fact that we are mortal. We are mortal because we are physical beings. From a Biblical perspective, we are not spirits trapped in material bodies; we are embodied beings. We are made of the dust of the earth and the breath of God. We eat and we laugh and we hug one another. We weep and we ache and we age. We are physical beings in a physical world, not spirit beings in a spirit world. Our bodies affect our spirits and our spirits affect our bodies. When our bodies ache, we can get short-tempered or downcast. When our spirits soar our bodies are able to dance. We are creatures.

The mark of the cross

It seems to me that all of this is contained in this mark of the ashes. We are creatures – but we are also creatures who have been gifted with the mark of the cross. (Excuse me for using ‘gift’ as a verb; I know it’s not, but it works in this case.) The mark of the ashes on our foreheads is not placed there as a smudge to remind us of our mortality, our creaturely-ness; it is given to us in the shape of the cross.

In our baptism that sign of the cross was placed upon us. We have a brand. I don’t know any modern brands – I don’t keep up with such things – but I remember when the shirts with the little IZOD alligator were all the rage. We have a mark on us. We are children of God. We are mortal creatures with the mark of eternity on us. The reality of death and the promise of resurrection are both there in that little cross. It is such an important reminder of our creaturely-ness – and, at the same time, such a huge promise that Christ is our life. It is a promise that this me that dances and weeps and despairs and hopes and loves and prays – this me born in time will be carried into eternity to join the eternal dance. It is an amazing and humbling promise.

It is also, however, a mark that carries me into the world. It is a mark of service, not of privilege. It is a mark of love not hardness of heart. It is a mark of shared bread not possessiveness. It is a mark of connection, not separation – of community, not detachment.

It is a mark that we belong to Christ, that we are Christ’s body in the world. We are light in the darkness. We are compassion on the Jericho road. We are brother to the Ethiopian Eunuch and sister to Lydia who deals in purple. We are fruit-bearing branches in the vine. We are the ambassadors of a new kingdom.

We are mortal, creatures of this physical world, yet marked with the sign of eternity, and sent to bear grace into the world. This is no small thing that happens with this little bit of dust and ash.

…Do Justice…Love Kindness…Walk Humbly…

Our theme during this Lenten season falls under the large banner of that verse from the prophet Micah:

“He has told you, O mortal, what is good;
and what does the Lord require of you
but to do justice, and to love kindness,
and to walk humbly with your God?”

It is one of those verses that captures essential truths very simply and it is an important reminder for this Lenten season. It captures what we also hear in the first reading today and in our Gospel: God is not interested in the outward performance of religious obligations; God is concerned with the shape of the human heart and the way we live with one another.   God wants a charitable heart, not a show of our giving. God wants a humble heart, not one that wants everyone to see how religious I am. God wants a prayerful heart, not a pretentious one.

The uniqueness of the Lord’s Prayer

We focus on a piece of the catechism each year, and this year we are focusing on the Lord’s Prayer. Through this season we will include in the bulletin the usual material from the catechisms about the Lord’s Prayer. We will talk about elements in the prayer and its core meaning. But our theme today is about the way Jesus prays – and the way he teaches us to pray – because the manner in which he prays is so different from anything else that was going on at the time of Jesus.

There are hints of this uniqueness in the Biblical text, references to Jesus spending the night in prayer, for example. In Luke, Jesus is in prayer after his baptism when the Holy Spirit comes upon him. We don’t see Jesus making the grand public prayers that are designed to give honor to God; we see him talking to his heavenly father. We don’t see Jesus parading for God; we see him communing with God.

The ancient world tended to think about the gods from their experience of rich and powerful humans. Society was divided between clients and patrons. If a hailstorm wiped out your crops and you didn’t have seed corn, you would go to your Patron and praise him for his goodness and beg him for aid. When he gave it to you, you would go through the street and publicly praise him for all to hear. Your job was to make your patron look good.

So prayer was about getting favors from the deity and making your god look good in the eyes of others. That’s why people built big temples. It’s why people made a big show of their gifts. It’s why people would stand on the street corner and praise God loudly when the call to prayer came.

But Jesus tells us to go in our room. The task is not to make God look good, but to be in communion with our heavenly Father. The goal is to be shaped by God’s presence, God’s Spirit – God’s love and mercy and compassion.

God knows what you need before you ask, says Jesus. Prayer is about something much more important than gaining favors; it is about being shaped by the Spirit of God.

The Imperative tense

The second thing about the prayer Jesus gave us is that it is filled with the imperative tense. We are so used to saying this prayer that we don’t really see it, I think. We are not saying “pretty, pretty, please,” like a child hoping for another cookie or permission to spend the night at a friends house. We are saying “do this, and do this, and do this.”

It is a remarkable way to speak to God. But it is the way he has told us to speak with him. To speak boldly. To speak daringly. To expect God to answer. To expect God to do what God has promised to do.

Demanding the promise

This is the third feature of the way Jesus taught us to pray: we are told to pray for God’s kingdom to come, for God’s will to be done, for God’s forgiveness to be given. We are praying for God to do what God has promised to do. It’s not “Can I go to Jimmy’s house”; it’s “You promised to take me to Jimmy’s house. Now go get the car keys.”

We wouldn’t dream of speaking like that to our parents. It is an unheard of way to speak with God. But this is the God who has shown himself to us in Jesus: A God whose purpose is justice and mercy and kindness. A God who has promised justice and mercy and kindness. A God who wants us to expect of him justice and mercy and kindness. A God who wants us to expect it of ourselves.

“He has told you, O mortal, what is good;
and what does the Lord require of you
but to do justice, and to love kindness,
and to walk humbly with your God?”

We are mortal creatures. We are children of this physical world with all its glories. We are promised eternity and marked with its sign. We are empowered to call upon God for God to do God’s mercy. And we are sent to bear that mercy into the world.