In the Name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.
The ashes that will mark our foreheads today are to be for us “a sign of our mortality and penitence.” The season of Lent is therefore a season for the whole person, body and soul: the mortality of the one and the penitence of the other. And yet these twin themes are signified together by the single sign of ashes, imposed upon the forehead of a single individual. Thus they are bound together, inextricably, just as body and soul are bound together. True penitence will never stray far from our acceptance of death, nor will death require of us anything less than a final act of penitence before the mercy of God. Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return -- Ash Wednesday reminds us that mortality is the form that penitence takes; that the Christian life of penitence is the practice of death.
But this annual reminder of our mortality confronts us at the level of our most basic drive for self-preservation, which by itself is all well and good. Humans instinctively protect the lives that God has given us from danger and harm, and so the fear of death is one of the major guiding principles of human life. But the Bible describes the fear of death as something that enslaves us; something that has a power of its own that binds us.  For human beings, the fear of death is therefore never just a matter of our natural sense of caution and safety. Because human mortality is the consequence of sin, death forever stands as the irrefutable evidence of our condition. And yet death is the one thing that sin cannot admit or accept. Sin is fundamentally a kind of self-deception, a futile attempt to claim life for ourselves apart from God and neighbor. It represents a rebellion against the God who is the creator and preserver of life itself, and thus it inevitably leads to death, for anything that is alienated from the life of God is dead by definition.
When Mark and I have the chance to go to New York City, one of the things we try to get on the agenda is to visit the Frick Collection on the upper East Side. The Frick is a former private mansion, and it houses artworks that the 19th century steel magnate Henry Clay Frick acquired over his life. Though there’s been some remodeling, the rooms still resemble the way they looked when Frick lived there. And in his living room, across from the fireplace, over a rug that picks up its colors to make it stand out even more dramatically, hangs one of the most important works in the collection: Giovanni Bellini’s “St. Francis in Ecstasy.”
Bellini puts Francis in an outdoor scene, standing beside a cliff which contains a small shelter; there are some animals and a town in the background, but the thing that draws your attention is Francis himself. He’s gazing awestruck off to the left, outside the frame, so we can’t actually see what he’s looking at. But whatever it may be, it is bathing both him and the landscape behind him in indescribable light.
This glow reflects off the rocks, and a laurel tree nearby is not only sparkling, but also inclined, as if the light source from outside the frame is radiating with such force that it’s become a physical weight, bending this tree over partway. St. Francis is looking right at whatever that invisible force outside the frame is, and his arms have stretched out at his sides in a mixture of surrender and awe. And you can just see the prints of the stigmata, the wounds of Jesus, beginning to form in Francis’ palms. Bellini’s painting, like many passages in Scripture, give amazing testimony to what the presence of God can do when it is manifest to a human being.
In the Name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.
There’s a troop of rather insolent squirrels that lives right outside our house that I have named the Squirrel Punks. Because these aren’t your ordinary squirrels. They have managed to enlarge what was once a small hole in our trash bin to just their size so that they can crawl in and help themselves to all the leftovers. Which means that when you open the trash bin unawares, you often happen upon the squirrel party of the century. And then of course they have the nerve to perch themselves directly in front of our front porch windows, as if to taunt us. Like I said, squirrel punks.
Of course, I know that there is nothing at all intentional about their behavior, let alone malicious. Because I know that at the end of the day, they’re just squirrels; and squirrels are incapable of being punks. Squirrels, like the rest of the animal kingdom, live by the instinct. Squirrels don’t have to try to act like squirrels -- you could say that being a squirrel just “comes naturally” to them. So despite my suspicions, the squirrel punks are just being squirrels.
When I came to you, brothers and sisters, I did not come proclaiming the mystery of God to you in lofty words or wisdom. For I decided to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ, and him crucified.
You can always count on St. Paul to go for the rhetorical flourish. Despite all those protestations we just heard about how un-lofty and artless his words are, he has such an instinct for verbal drama. I decided to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ and him crucified. Nothing, whatsoever, except Jesus Christ and him crucified. As we continue reading along in 1st Corinthians, Paul is really talking here about his initial approach to the residents of Corinth, but reading that sentence in chapter 2 could make you think this is either going to be a very short letter, or a very repetitive one. After all, he claims he’s only got one topic.
When you get to know this letter, you discover that it has far more than one topic. As I said 2 weeks ago, we are in early stages in Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians at this point, though we’ll be reading nearly the whole thing as part of our Lenten program, and you’ll see that in fact it’s 16 chapters long and covers all sorts of topics, some of them quite pragmatic. Paul writes about conflict within a parish. He writes about the importance of collaborative servant leadership. There’s a section on lawsuits and a section on marriage. There’s some complex stuff dealing with the religious pluralism in Corinth.
Today, February 2 is the Feast of the Presentation, Emmanuel’s Feast of Title. This is one of only three feasts, which if they occur on a Sunday, can replace the lessons of that particular day. So, we probably won’t celebrate this occasion on a Sunday morning again for seven more years. And yet we see today’s gospel story every time we come into this worship space.
A word about feasts of title, for many churches the choice of feast day is easy, St. Matthews in Bloomington is on September 21st, the day throughout the world that the gospel writer, and tax collector, Matthew is remembered. Christ the King in Normal celebrates on the last Sunday of Pentecost, which fittingly enough is also known as Christ the King Sunday. Emmanuel, meaning “God with Us”, could actually have any day of the year as its feast because God is always with us. The Presentation was chosen as our name day, I think, because today’s gospel tells of the first time that Jesus is taken out of his own private setting, his home, his birthplace and shown to the world. God has come into the world for everyone. The Presentation is the story depicted in the stained glass window behind the high altar here. I do not know which came first, selecting the name day, or having the window. Regardless, Feb. 2 is the traditional day for Emmanuel Champaign’s Feast of Title.