Memento, homo, quia pulvis es, et in pulverem reverteris.
Remember, man, that thou art dust, and unto dust thou shalt return.
Pulverise. The root of that English word is the Latin word for dust. It literally means to be turned into dust. Which is exactly what death does. It's going to pulverise me, you, and everyone and everything else.
Howzat for some good news?
And that's not only living stuff, it's everything. Everything decays, everything loses its value over time. Go look at your car. Then look at its service record. Look at what you paid for it and what it's worth now. Or, speaking of paying for stuff, look at the money in your wallet or your bank statement. Both the money itself and the value given it are decaying.
Such is life. Such is even non life. It's even measurable scientifically. That's called a half-life, which is the time it takes something to lose half its original value.
And such are the famous words from the Imposition of Ashes on Ash Wednesday, or on Aschermittwoch, as they say in the original language of our beloved synod. We are dust, and unto dust we and everything else will return. Observable fact, and we start right there.
And go where? Is that all there is? So we can resign ourselves to that, without illusion and without asking it to be more? So we go for the gusto we can get while we can go for anything? So we create such meaning as we can in between the inevitable finish to a start for which we did not ask? What meaning or purpose can something that is dust to dust have anyway?
In Lent we begin with the most unflinching fact of our existence, death, and are asked to be quite clear on that -- you will die, and everything and everyone else dies or decays or passes too. Ashes signify that. Ashes are that. Ashes are in your face about that. Ashes are ON your face about that.
And ashes are also something else. Ashes are a sign of repentance. Repentance from what? Is it not God who needs to repent, if there is one, for supposedly creating such an inescapable joke whose only meaning is what we provide it? So you come up with a service where you mark stuff on our faces and read a Gospel passage saying not to go around looking like you're being all religious by marking yourselves?
Hey, it's Lent. This is not going to be pretty. Or very nice either. It gets a little rough. And on Ash Wednesday the two most basic facts of Man come to-gether in a jarring way. One is the fact that you came from nothing and you're going back there. The other is, God doesn't want it that way, didn't set it up that way, and if it's that way now, guess whose doing that is?
From the Introit echoed in the Collect through the prophecy of Joel to the words of Jesus, which are all read at mass on Ash Wednesday, the double message of the ashes is clear: turn to God and you will be delivered, stick to ashes and you will be, well, ashes.
Rick Warren says, whenever God wants to prepare someone for something, he takes forty days. His Forty Days for either churches or individuals has the same basis, two passages from Matthew, the one the Great Commandment in Matthew 22, and the other the Great Commission in Matthew 28. From that he abstracts five principles, or purposes for Man.
Love the Lord with all your heart … (Worship)
Love your neighbour as yourself. (Ministry)
Go and make disciples … (Mission)
Baptising them … (Fellowship)
Teaching them … (Discipleship)
Guess what? The church in its liturgy -- supposedly the dismal domain of those who only care about maintaining the musty museum of such things -- for most of its two millennia existence has been offering a five-point forty days of purpose to prepare for God's answer to Man's problem, the Death and Resurrection of Jesus, the Christian Passover. The period of preparation for it in both the Eastern and Western Church is a period of forty days in imitation of Christ’s forty days in the desert before he began his way to the cross.
The Eastern church's forty days starts on a Monday called Clean Monday and runs forty consecutive days until Friday of the sixth week, then celebrates Lazarus Saturday as a pointing toward Jesus' Resurrection, then proceeds with Holy Week where his way to the cross is told.
The Western church starts on a Wednesday and does not include Sundays in the count, each Sunday being a "little Easter", and concludes with Holy Saturday, which is also the end of Holy Week.
Same idea, different ways of setting it up.
For the five Sundays in Lent before Holy Week, the Western Church offers the five point plan of preparation. Lent, or Quadragesima, will start with the starkest facts of human existence, right from looking like there is no meaning or purpose to it, in your face, ON your face, then see why that is and what God has done about it, and end actually inviting, welcoming, not fearing, the judgement of God.
At one time in English, Lent itself was called Quadragesima, meaning forty days, the duration of Lent, and it's also the name of the first Sunday in Lent. This still survives in other languages, for example in Spanish the word Cuaresma for Lent. "Lent" in English originally just meant Spring. The word lent derives from a Germanic root meaning long, applied then to Spring as the daylight gets longer, then applied to Quadragesima which happens in Spring.
Here's how it works. The church has a definite pattern it uses to take us through the life of Christ and our life in Christ. It's an annual (not a three year) cycle. It arranges the readings from the book it says you can rely on, the Bible, and a sermon based on these reading in the same pattern every day.
Here's the pattern.
The church begins its liturgy with an introductory verse called the Introit that sets the tone for the day, usually from the Psalms, with a verse response to it. In fact, the Sunday often takes its name from the first word or two of this introductory verse, the Introit. Then, the church has a prayer before the Scripture readings each Sunday that collects the thoughts of the day, called, oddly enough, the Collect. Then, for Scripture readings, the church continues the synagogue practice, replacing the Torah, or Law, readings with Gospel ones, and replacing the related haftorah, or Prophets, readings with ones from the Epistles.
Let’s see how that lays out for Ash Wednesday and the Sundays in Lent. (We'll get to Holy Week in later posts.)
Ash Wednesday / Aschermittwoch.
Introit. Wisdom 11:24,25,27. Thou has mercy upon all, O Lord, and hatest none of the things which Thou hast made, overlooking the sins of men for the sake of repentance and sparing them, because Thou art the Lord our God. Verse, Psalm 56:2.
Collect. Almighty and everlasting God, who hatest nothing that Thou hast made and dost forgive the sins of all those who are penitient, create and make in us new and contrite hearts, that we, worthily lamenting our sins and acknowledging our wretchedness, may obtain of Thee, the God of all mercy, perfect remission and forgiveness.
Epistle. Joel 2:12-19.
Gospel. Matthew 6:16-21.
Invocavit -- He shall call to Me,
Introit. Psalm 91:15,16. He shall cry to Me, and I shall hear him; I will deliver him and I will glorify him; I will fill him with length of days. Verse, Psalm 91:1.
Collect. O Lord, mercifully hear our prayer and stretch forth the right hand of the majesty to defend us from them that rise up against us.
Epistle. 2 Cor 6:1-10 Not to receive grace in vain. Now is the acceptable time, now it the day of salvation.
Gospel. Matthew 4:1-11 Jesus' forty days and nights, tempted to be a false Messiah.
Reminiscere – Remember, O Lord,
Introit. Psalm 25:6,3,22. Remember, O Lord, Thy compassions, and Thy mercies that are from the beginning of the world, lest at any time our enemies rule over us: deliver us, O God of Israel, from all our tribulations. Verse, Psalm 25:1,2.
Collect. O God, who seest that of ourselves we have no strength, keep us both outwardly and inwardly that we may be defended from all adversities which may happen to the body and from all evil thoughts which may assault and hurt the soul.
Epistle. 1 Thess 4:1-7 Progress in sanctification, holiness.
Gospel. Matthew 15:21-28 Jesus heals the Canaanite woman’s daughter. Great is thy faith, let it be done.
Oculi -- My eyes are ever toward the Lord,
Introit. Psalm 25:15-16. My eyes are ever toward the Lord: for He shall pluck my feet out of the snare; look Thou upon me, and have mercy on me, for I am alone and poor. Verse, Psalm 25:1,2.
Collect. We beseech Thee, almighty God, look upon the hearty desires of Thy humble servants and stretch forth the right hand of Thy majesty to be our defence against all our enemies.
Epistle. Eph 5:1-9 Walk, then, as children of light.
Gospel. Luke 11:14-28 Jesus’ lesson after casting out a demon. Blessed are they that hear the Word and keep it.
Laetare – Rejoice, O Jerusalem,
Introit. Isaiah 66:10,11. Rejoice, O Jerusalem, and come to-gether all you who love her: rejoice with joy, you who have been in sorrow: that you may exult, and be filled from the breasts of your consolation. Verse, Psalm 122:1.
Collect. Grant, we beseech Thee, almighty God, that we, who for our evil deeds do worthily deserve to be punished, by the comfort of Thy grace may mercifully be relieved.
Epistle. Gal 4:22-31 Children of Agar, bondage, slave, Sinai; children of Sarah, promise, free, Jerusalem.
Gospel. John 6:1-15 The loaves and fishes. Passover is near, the bread king.
Judica -- Judge me, O God.
Introit. Psalm 43:1,2. Judge me, O God, and distinguish my cause from the nation that is not holy: deliver me from the unjust and deceitful man: for Thou are my God and my strength. Verse, Psalm 43:3.
Collect. We beseech Thee, almighty God, mercifully to look upon Thy people, that by Thy great goodness they may be governed and preserved evermore in body and soul.
Epistle. Heb 9:11-15 Christ the High Priest, blood of the new covenant blots out sins under the old covenant.
Gospel. John 8:46-59 If anyone keep my word, he will never see death. Before Abraham came to be, I am.
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