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Joel: Fasting, God’s grace
Gospel: Mostly about how to properly perform devotion without making a theatre of it.
Good evening!
And we are back in Matthew 6 - we are going back and forth in the gospel a little bit. It seems like a lot of attention is given to fasting in our texts today, which is definitely an element of the lent season, but not all of it. Lent is a time of reflection and sort of a reset before the events of the Holy Week - 40 days in the desert of sorts. And Ash Wednesday is the entry way into it.
Choosing to being hungry is of course different than to be made go hungry because of oppression, poverty, discrimination, abuse… Choosing to go hungry can have positive health benefits, can be an exercise in resilience, or can be used to spiritual ends. In some times and places, Lent had more of a practical element, when it went hand in hand with the tail end of winter, when food may have been scarcer. In the U. S., the shortages of our COVID times are but a limited taste of such limits on consumption. Has stores been emptier than usual? Yes, but not completely empty.
And Jesus tells us that whatever we do, be it fasting or praying, we are to do it in secret and not make a theatre out of it to gain recognition and respect of others, for the only one we should care about in such times is God. I am pretty sure, most Lutherans do not have such tendencies, we probably often find ourselves on the other side of the spectrum of doing religious acts in public, which has its pitfalls in itself.
However, while the texts cover the themes such as fasting or piety, in the liturgical day of Ash Wednesday has so much more to offer than that. We confess, we reflect, and most importantly we impose ashes on our foreheads. It is one of the liturgical days when we should talk about our mortality in light of God’s eternal glory. For as long as human societies exist, people devised ways to deal with death. People in archaic times began processing death with communal rites indicating that one’s death reaches beyond that one individiual and their temporal existence. Life after death is then understood as waiting, those that passed are described as sleepers. French historian Philip Ariese calls this phase “tamed death”. The educated and rich people of the 11. century later began to embrace “the death of self” - such an individual sought to make a name for themselves and secure an existence beyond death through religious acts. The concept of soul came into the forefront as the one piece of oneself that survives death and continues to influence reality.
In the 18th century, the fascination with death and its various, even strange, aspects led to breaking of bonds of the “tamed death” and death gradually regain its fearful elements. Just in the following century, a new model emerged as a consequence of sentiment revolution, which prioritized emotions towards the closest family and its priority over the society and the individual. Thus “the death of someone close” was born - introducing the fear of someone close to us dying, which also influenced beliefs about afterlife - it shifted towards reunion of those separated by death and the development of the modern cult of graveyards. The last model of the historian is called “the inverse death”, a wholly modernist idea connected with the development of medical care - the dying are often prevented from getting to know about their imminent death to prevent their distress and thus many of the developed tools to deal with death lay unused, such as reconciliation, planning, or sacramental rites. Death is turned into something dirty that must hidden away in hospitals under the supervision of medical staff. A shame and fear comes into forefront as people no longer talk about evil and the afterlife, thus losing more ways to deal with death. This model prevails to this day, perhaps save for a select elite that seeks to turn death into an inconspicuous, dignified departure of a reconciled person.
I think you can spot the various ways in which Christianity attempted to respond to one model or another - to this day, there are ways in which we address the various fears and anxieties of these models. Christianity is meant to be an affirming religion - we affirm that death is best processed in a community, that each and every one of us has a value in God’s eyes and thus every death matters and that you do not have to spend thousands of dollars to secure your spot with God, we affirm that grief over somebody close dying is real and God wants us all to be reunited in the Kingdom of God, we affirm that dying is nothing to be ashamed of, and we finally affirm that a dignified death with full reconciliation with God and other people is a right for all bearers of God’s image, not just the select few, because as you treat those that are dying, it is as if you are treating a dying Jesus.
As we receive ashes today, let us keep all that in mind - death is real and so is the grief, fear, and pain associated with it. However, while now is the time to confess our sins and remember our mortality in the face of God’s eternal glory, we trust and believe that it is not the final word and that God will turn tears to joy and fear to faith. Let’s not hide from death like most of those around us want to, but let’s strengthen ourselves with faith, allow ourselves to feel it all, and then, when we are ready, embark once again on the journey through the wilderness towards God’s eternal glory. Amen.
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