The Preacher’s Study
Ash Wednesday, Year C
John W.B. Hill
Joel 2.1-2, 12-17 or Isaiah 58.1-12;
2 Cor. 5.20b – 6.10;
Matt. 6.1-6, 16-21
The Gospel readings for Year C in ‘ordinary time’ (which includes the Sundays after Epiphany as well as the Sundays after Pentecost) are sequential selections from Luke’s version of the story. In Lent, however, the selection of Gospel readings reflects the special agenda of the season. The first Sunday of Lent is a good example: the story of Jesus’ temptations in the wilderness is the inevitable aftermath of his Baptism (which we celebrated some weeks ago on the first Sunday after the Epiphany).
So it is worth keeping Lent’s special agenda in mind as we prepare to preach. Lent originated as a season of testing for those preparing for baptism — testing whether they had the will to do the will of God — and candidates for baptism would be enrolled for this testing on the first Sunday of Lent. The Gospel readings during Lent reveal how Jesus’ own commitment to do the will of his Father was tested by people’s resistance to him (including resistance from his own disciples!)
But Lent also became a season of testing for those who had compromised their allegiance to Christ but were now seeking reconciliation with the company of disciples. They too would be tested for their will to do the will of God; and they would be enrolled for this testing on Ash Wednesday. The sign that marked their path to reconciliation was the sign of the cross which they had received in baptism, the sign which they now acknowledged had turned to ashes.
Today, however, Lent is a time for all Christians to follow this path to a new reconciliation, for we are all heirs of a profoundly compromised form of discipleship, our life’s habits scarcely distinguishable from those of the surrounding culture. The reading from the prophet Joel addresses precisely this condition.
The Gospel reading from the Sermon on the Mount (together with the reading from the book of Isaiah, if that is chosen) addresses our sorry condition on another level: Jesus warns us that our religion itself can be a way of avoiding the will of God (and the prophet provides some examples of this phenomenon).
What does it mean, then, to observe a holy Lent? Is cultivating some healthy self-discipline by fasting, or becoming more pious, or joining a study group an acceptable substitute for “loosing the bonds of injustice, undoing the thongs of the yoke, and letting the oppressed go free?” Or for “sharing our bread with the hungry, bringing the homeless poor into our house, and clothing the naked” (Isaiah 58)?
Thus the passionate entreaty in the reading from St Paul: “Be reconciled to God! For our sake God made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.” Our reconciliation with God consists in learning to follow the way of Jesus.
So what will our lives be like when we are reconciled to the Lord, who “is full of compassion and mercy, slow to anger and of great kindness” (Psalm 103)? Will our experience of discipleship begin to resemble the experience Paul describes (2 Corinthians 6)?
John W. B. Hill is an Anglican presbyter living in Toronto, Canada. He is a Council member of APLM, chair of Liturgy Canada, and author of one of the first Anglican sources for catechumenal practice.