St Michael and All Angels

Observatory, Cape Town

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Ash Wednesday, 2015

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 In the part of Chapter 6 of S Matthew’s gospel just before today’s lection, Jesus addresses almsgiving and then prayer. We have just heard what he had to say about fasting.
 
When you give alms … When you pray … When you fast ...’ In Jesus’ words to his disciples, some of  which we heard in today’s Gospel, he takes it for granted that his disciples will do these things: it’s not if, but when. Jesus’ audience, it seems, needed no encouragement to give alms, to pray, and to fast, but rather needed a word of warning: they were not to parade their good deeds before other people, but to do them inconspicuously – indeed, secretly.
 
Matthew has Jesus sounding a great caution about the public face of our repentance. The way in which he expresses it is to say, “When you fast, be not as the hypocrites.” This is a fascinating use of words.  
 
The ancient Greek word ὑποκριτής (hypokrites) means ‘an actor’, or more literally means "one who interprets". The first recorded case of an actor performing took place in about 534 BC when the Greek performer Thespis stepped on to the stage at the Theatre Dionysus and became the first known person to speak words as a character in a play or story. Prior to Thespis' act, stories were only known to be told in song and dance and also in stories in the third person narrative. In honour of Thespis, actors are commonly called Thespians.
 
In his use of the word ‘hypocrites’, Jesus is cautioning us not to be like actors. He is suggesting that any repentance we might have should be real, and not merely a show so that people might think we are well on the way to holiness. 
 
Now, in some ways, this warning by Jesus might seem like an odd emphasis with which to begin the season of Lent. After all, unlike Jesus’ disciples in the Gospel, we might well need a bit of encouragement to engage seriously with the season’s threefold discipline of prayer, fasting, and almsgiving at all. We might need to be reminded how each of these things, by helping us to order our priorities towards God, other people, and ourselves, helps us grow as human beings, and as Christians. 
 
There is risk involved in each of these three disciplines. 
 
When we hear a warning that fasting can be dangerous, we’re tempted not to take fasting seriously. Many of us can probably remember when we were young and preparing for Confirmation that the church had a rule of fasting before receiving Communion. The fast started at midnight the night before. In those days Mass was only said in the morning. After Vatican 2 priests were allowed to say Mass later in the day. This necessitated a change in the rule of fasting. The current Roman Catholic rule is one hour  before receiving Communion. We do not take fasting seriously anymore.
 
When we hear that it is better to pray in our room with the door shut, we risk not bothering with that idea we had of going to church more often during Lent, but despite our good intentions don’t actually get any more private prayer done either. 
 
We risk losing the joy of helping those in need through our almsgiving as we plague ourselves with doubts about whether we’re doing it with the right motivation, or for appearances’ sake.
 
It’s almost as though you can’t win. If we don’t do penance, if we don’t make an effort to live the Christian life, then we know we’re failing, and falling short of what Jesus – quite literally, judging by today’s Gospel – expects of his followers. And yet it seems that, if we do make an effort, if we do challenge ourselves to practise our faith more deeply this Lent in these traditional forms of prayer, fasting and almsgiving, then we’re still risking failure, either by not meeting the goals we set ourselves, or by congratulating ourselves – and inviting others’ congratulations – if we do.
 
On the Internet at the moment there is an horrific 5 minute video. It shows the black-garbed members of Islamic State leading 21 young Egyptian men onto a beach in Libya. These young men were Coptic Christians. They were made to kneel down, and given a chance to pray. They were then pushed down onto the sand. Together they called out “Ya Rabbi Yasou”, which means “O My Lord Jesus”. The video then shows them all having their head cut off using sharp daggers. 
 
These men were not especially holy Christians. They were ordinary young men, who happened to believe in Jesus and who went to church, just as you have today. 
 
We are not talking about the martyrdom of people who lived 500 years ago. This happened last week. This could happen here. We were told last week that Islamic State, Boko Haram, and a few other Islamic terrorist groups function in our land. 21 of us could so easily be taken away as we leave church, signed with the sign of the cross on our foreheads in ash. 
 
Lent is a season of penitence. We have 40 days stretching before us when God expects us to examine the way in which we live, both privately and in the public sphere. We are called upon to expect the day of the Lord; we are called upon to live as those preparing for the ultimate expression of love in the passion, death and resurrection of Jesus at Eastertide.
 
 

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