Monday, February 12, 2018

WEEKLY COMMENTARY: Why Ash Wednesday?



The economy seems to be solid and slowly growing.  Advances in readily available technology have given us a growing variety of options for how each of us can focus our lives more and more on material things.  I remember a friend of mine telling me that for years he has not been able to park his car in their garage because of all the non-automotive clutter.

So, we are presented daily with more and more ways to satisfy our personal appetites, and even to develop new appetites.  Is there an upper limit?  For some, it is simply the limits of time and money.  For all of us, however, there remain choices to be made.  One of the choices always is to skip some particular material temptation, or not.  Whether that will be a hard-to-make choice depends on the extent of our self-control.  Putting it another way ---- when are we willing to try some self-denial?

What are "self-control" and "self-denial"?  Are they not the same thing when we are facing "temptation"?  A popular definition of both terms is:  to exercise the ability to override impulses in favor of longer-term goals.  The heart of the problem seems always the same ---- the conflict between short-term rewards (which we seem hard-wired to greatly value) and longer-term goals (which often seem to have no present value ---- only a future value).  A slice of just-baked apple pie placed right in front of us, in other words, is simply a lot more compelling than a long-term desire to be slim.

But, our abilities for self-control and self-denial must be kept strong.  There will always be times when we need them.  We understand that one cigarette, or one more glass of wine, or just one hour of procrastination, will have no material effect in the long run.  Except that, the first exception may lead to another, and we eventually find ourselves in some place we never intended to be.

Fortunately, conscientious practice of our Christian faith could reinforce of ability for self-control and self-denial.  It helps us find the necessary balance that each of us needs in our daily lives.

We were not the only ones who needed self-control and self-denial.  Jesus was able to demonstrate and strengthen his self-control and self-denial by fasting in the desert for 40 days.  The  Gospels of Matthew, Mark and Luke describe his 40 days of fasting before the beginning of his public ministry.  During this time of fasting, Jesus endured temptation by the Devil.  Indeed, sometimes don't we feel we are being tempted by the Devil as we attempt some kind of self-denial !

But, more importantly, the attitude of Jesus during his gruesome crucifixion, is perhaps the greatest story of self-denial in human history.

Importantly, one way to control our personal appetites is by giving ourselves to the needs of others.  Giving of ourselves to the needs of others is actually another form of self-denial ---- denying ourselves of the luxury of just coasting through life.

The strengthening of our own discipline for appropriate denial of appetites and the giving of ourselves to others are so important to Christians, that long ago we adopted an annual period of reflection on the nature of Jesus Christ's self-denial sacrifice.  We call this time Lent.  We observe Lent for the six weeks leading to Easter Sunday.  This year Lent extends from Ash Wednesday on February 14, to Easter eve on March 31.

During Lent, believers prepare themselves for Easter by paring down their lives through fasting, giving up luxuries, showing penance for their sins, and "giving alms" (donating money, time and talent to charities, or taking part in charity events).  All of these actions are forms of "denial of self."

Ash Wednesday derives it's name from the practice of placing ashes on the foreheads of worshipers as a reminder and celebration of human mortality, and as a sign of mourning for Jesus's sacrifice and our repentance to God.  Ash Wednesday is not only a day of fasting, but also a day of contemplating one's own self-centered transgressions ---- a day of repentance.  The first day of Lent (Ash Wednesday) comes the day after Shrove Tuesday or Mardi Gras ("Fat Tuesday"), the last day of the "Carnival" season, famously celebrated each year in New Orleans.  The day before Ash Wednesday, therefore, in popular lore, is the last day to indulge in the vices and luxuries one has planned to give up for Lent.

Abstinence and fasting during Lent is a form of penance, but we also need to use this time to reflect on and take stock of our spiritual lives.  Perhaps Lent is not just about "giving up things".  It may be a good time to begin practicing some new, longer-term, positive attitudes, as well as denial of some of the material attitudes and appetites our modern secular culture makes seem so appealing.
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These thoughts are brought to you by CPC's Adult Spiritual Development Team, hoping to encourage you to pursue some personal spiritual growth this winter at CPC.
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