The Daily Offices

The Daily Offices from the Anglican Book of Common Prayer, (Canada 1962), including daily Bible readings and occasional sermons from the Cathedral of the Annunication of the Blessed Virgin Mary in Ottawa

Tuesday, February 15, 2005

Fr. Carl's sermon for Lent I

LENT I 2005

Last Sunday we heard read Bishop Wilkinson’s message to everyone in the Diocese on the keeping of a Holy Lent. In it, he provided many helpful suggestions on the proper approach to and observance of a Lenten fast. In summarizing the purpose, he stated, “an obedient, humble, persevering observance of fasting and abstinence as required by the Prayer Book during the Lenten Season will strengthen our union with one another, and be an act of witness to our Christian Profession, ‘which is, to follow our Saviour Christ, and to be made like unto Him; that as He died and rose again for us, so should we, who are baptized, die from sin, and rise again to righteousness, continually mortifying all evil desires and daily in increasing in all virtue and godliness of living’(BCP page 530).” His concluding statement was, “May God the Holy Trinity sustain us all throughout this Holy Season, and ‘grant us that with a pure conscience we may duly keep the Paschal Feast, and at the day of judgement be placed in the number of [His] Saints and chosen ones’.”

Lent quite clearly looks forward to Easter; the purpose of our penitential exercises, including fasting, is one of preparation, not only for this particular year’s celebration of Easter, but more importantly for our souls’ everlasting benefit. In today’s Gospel we read of our Lord’s 40-day fasting and temptation, which served as preparation for him, and example to us. And the aforementioned Prayer Book quotation states, “to follow our Saviour Christ, and to be made like unto Him,” not that I’m suggesting that anyone should go off into the wilderness for 40 days without food. The exhortation to “be made like unto Him” is a prayer that we may, each of us, begin to display one or more of the virtues which He so perfectly manifested to the world.

Last Sunday, we heard read one of the better known passages from St. Paul, "Though I speak with the tongues of men and of angels … And now abideth faith, hope, charity, these three: but the greatest of these is charity." Faith, hope and charity are called the three theological virtues. Along with the four cardinal virtues of: wisdom (or prudence), justice, temperance and fortitude, we have a total of seven Christian virtues. Contemplating these seven, not just in terms of putting our own lives under the penitential microscope, but more especially prayerfully to seek those virtues in our own lives, would be a commendable Lenten exercise.

What might be another spiritually beneficial exercise for us during the season of Lent?

In the many and various ways in which God spoke to mankind in Holy Scripture, there are, in the New Testament, six voices of our Lord, which, because they all begin with the word, "Come", might be described as "Divine Invitations". And a little aside here to our theology students - don't go running off to look in your concordance, trying to find anything about "Divine Invitations". The term is not part of any officially developed part of Christian theology. Rather it is just a handy turn of phrase, based on the invitation, "Come", from our Lord.

The six occurrences are:
1) Mark 1:16 "Come ye after me, and I will make you to become fishers of men."
2) John 1:39 "Come and see" after being asked by two of His new disciples where He lived.
3) Matthew 11:28 "Come unto me all that labour and are heavy laden" as we hear at every Eucharist.
4) Luke 14:17 "Come, for all things are now ready" in a parable about a banquet.
5) Rev. 4:1 "Come up hither" the perhaps terrifyingly exciting invitation to St. John the Divine after he saw a door opened in heaven.
6) Mark 6:31 "Come ye yourselves apart into a desert place and rest awhile."
It is this last, out of sequence with the rest, that I should like us to consider as a source of contemplation, or even inspiration, for Lent. There is an obvious connection with today's Gospel reading, as our Lord's 40 days were spent in the desert, and that is where He now invites His disciples to go. However, let us look first at the other aspects surrounding this invitation.

The Twelve had just returned from a mission in Galilee, upon which our Lord had sent them. It had very likely been a time of spiritual, mental and physical strain; and what they needed now, perhaps more than anything else, was a time of rest and quiet. We know that our Lord devoted a great deal of care and attention to the spiritual welfare of His disciples. He watched over their training and development with never failing concern, explained His parables to them, and was always thinking about their needs, which He understood far better than they did themselves. And in this instance, He saw that it was essential that they should have a time of withdrawal which would restore their weary spirits, and also provide them with an opportunity for quiet reflection concerning their recent experiences.

Did anyone know better than He, from His own experience, the need for periodic times of stillness and solitude? It was, as we know from the Gospels, His habit to make systematic provision of this kind for His own spiritual life. The Forty Days in the wilderness, upon which the season of Lent is based, is only one instance of His sense of this need.

Our Lord said elsewhere, "The disciple is not above his master." If our Lord and Master felt this need so strongly for Himself, surely we must be certain that it is something that we, his followers, can not afford to dismiss. So here, at the beginning of Lent, might we not do well to approach it from this point of view, and try to see it not merely as an ordinance or decree of the Church to which we are asked to submit ourselves, but rather as a direct personal invitation to go apart with Him into a place of quiet and retreat, where we might have leisure to think and to pray; where we may find some of that "rest for our souls" which we must so sorely need?

Instead of thinking of Lent as a time of somewhat onerous and perhaps unwelcome restraint, cannot we rather come to it as those who are ready to listen gladly to the wise and loving counsel of our Lord, Whose voice bids us, for our own highest good, to come apart from the almost ceaseless racket of this modern life, and "rest a while" in this secluded place called Lent, which has truly been provided for us for the refreshing and renewing of our souls?

St. Mark, in telling us about how our Lord invited the Twelve to come apart with Him and rest a while in a desert place, adds the remark that "there were many coming and going, and they had no leisure so much as to eat." This was undoubtedly true, as Galilee in our Lord's time (as our Bible study regulars will remember from our review a few years ago), Galilee was a very densely populated province. In the Gospels we are conscious of an almost ceaseless pressure of thronging crowds upon our Lord. It must all have been very exhausting, and peace and quiet was often, very likely, difficult to come by.

Most of us today will probably feel that St. Mark's words are no less applicable in our own time. "Many coming and going, and no leisure so much as to eat." Surely the rush and turmoil of our present existence stands out; many of us seem to live in one perpetual whirl, and are for ever hurrying from one thing to another. And this applies not only to the work world; even in the pursuit of pleasure, amusement and recreation most are caught up into an atmosphere of scurry and rush. Too many people today live in a constant hurly-burly of activity; leisure and quiet seem to be vanishing from our daily lives.

Many people are beginning to be aware of the injurious effect this ceaseless racket and torrent of noise has on our physical well-being. A direct result would appear to be the increasing prevalence of nervous disorders. But it would appear that most are less fully aware of the disastrous effect that it has upon our spiritual life. If to have no leisure so much as to eat is a danger for the body, to have no leisure so much as to read, or to think, or to pray, is most certainly an acute danger for the soul.

When the doctor tells us that our physical powers are in need of a tune-up, that we are suffering from all kinds of strains and we need six weeks complete rest and change of scene, except for the extreme type "A" persons, we accept the advice readily enough, knowing full well that the doctor is correct. But how slow are we to accept the word of the Great Physician when He tells us that our spiritual vitality is badly run down and that we need quiet and a change of atmosphere to build it up again; that we have diluted our spiritual attention so much that the slightest shower in our life will wash away our meagre spiritual attainments.

There is certainly nothing wrong in approaching Lent from the more "traditional" perspective of a critical review of oneself, using something like the seven Christian virtues as our litmus, or other aids such as St. Augustine's Prayer Book, to examine our lives. Such examination is considered a "normal" part of the Lenten preparations leading up to Easter, as we shall hear in a few minutes in the first of the two Exhortations. The purpose being that, with God's help, we might be able to amend that which is amiss, so that, as the second Exhortation (which we shall hear on Palm Sunday) says, "we may come holy and clean to such a heavenly Feast, in the marriage garment required by God." Equally, to fast and/or abstain in various ways, be it from certain food types, or excessive quantities of food, and from other activities that are distractions from more virtuous behaviour is certainly commendable. But might we not also heed the Divine Invitation this Lenten Season, to "Come apart" into a quiet place, which, after all, is a form of abstaining, fasting from worldly activity. Thus might we all refresh our souls so that, with renewed vigour and powers of attention, we may the more fully participate in the Easter joys.