March 9, 2011

“A Surprising Mentor”

Joel 2:1-2, 12-17

Matthew 6:1-6, 16-21

These texts this evening have been chosen to set the tone for Lent and to emphasize prayer and devoutness.

Joel calls for a day of public confession and repentance as the ‘Day of the Lord’ approaches. The people, all the people, are urged to return to God. Apparently their focus has been in the wrong direction; there are no specific sins named, but rather a direction that is simply wrong. Get going in the right direction, says the prophet.

And in Matthew’s gospel, disciples are warned that engaging in public displays of piety for the sake of displaying one’s faithfulness is false piety. We are warned that we should approach our spiritual practices with humble veneration.

In the lives of the disciples, Spiritual practices are assumed to be part and parcel of life. Jesus takes this for granted. He does not tell his disciples to keep the commandments; he assumes that they will. He also assumes that they will want to go beyond the commandments. Like any observant Jew, they will want to serve their neighbor by giving alms, worship God by praying and live a disciplined life by fasting. Jesus does not say “if you fast” but “when you fast.”

The most basic of all of the spiritual disciplines, of course, is to pray. We are all pray-ers; we know how to pray. But when we think about learning to pray we forget our experience and turn outside ourselves for answers and insights. The Spiritual life is strengthened if we have a mentor.

The Mentor we will look at during this Lenten season is Mary, the mother of Jesus.

For most Protestants, Mary is relegated to the relative few weeks of Advent, and even there she is not generally lifted up to the high place that she is regarded by the Eastern Orthodox. For them she is the ‘Theotokos,’ the bearer of God. For Western Orthodox Christians she is important beyond Advent.

As lovely as it is to contemplate the birth narratives with Mary being greeted by Angels, Mary is also a perfect companion during Lent. We will need to shift our emphasis to her place as a refuge for sinners, a comforter of the afflicted, and a helper to all Christians. We will need to remember her central place in the Passion story, as one of the faithful few who made their way to Golgotha. Mary, in this way, is also the mother of sorrows. She must also be remembered for her faith. After all, she and a few other women were the first to encounter the risen Christ. We want to remember her courage when others fear caused them to hide away.

After the time of the Reformation, Protestants threw away a bunch of perfectly good practices because we mistakenly believed that nothing good happened in the church before the Council of Trent. There is a movement in the church today to reclaim some ancient practices and their richness, to strengthen our lives. So let’s be clear: We will not be worshiping Mary. No Christians really do that. But for us, she will serve as a kind of Icon, a window, through which we can see true discipleship lived out.

Who, after all can imagine a Christian life that does not offer charity; doesn’t lift any prayer for self or others; never abstains from anything so that those without may receive? The warning, then, that “Now is the time” is a perfect message for Ash Wednesday. If we have been off in different directions, if we’ve been distracted in our Christian practices, now is the time to get going.

Growing in faith, working at spiritual formation, is a basic task for every Christian. Here in Matthew’s gospel Jesus encourages the disciples to take up these Christian practices, but like every practice it is helpful to learn about it from someone else. I hope you will join me during the remainder of Lent on Wednesday evenings to take up some of the mysteries of faith and how they are lived out in a disciple named Mary.