On behalf of others
If you are here today, you are in a minority. Even though Ash Wednesday is the entry point that launches Lent, even though it sets in motion our annual approach to the central event of the Christian life, even though this is one of the high points of the year in any liturgical church, it’s a rare parish where the participation on Ash Wednesday is as high as on, say, any one good Sunday morning. So if you are here on Ash Wednesday, doing what practicing Christians do together, you are in a minority.
But, of course, it’s not just Ash Wednesday. If you are participating in a church at all, you are in a minority. This has been true in the USA for as long as we have records, with one odd blip of divergence in the middle of the last century. People over-report attending church, just as they say “yes, I always floss,” but even the over-reported numbers aren’t majorities. For most of our history in America, church participation has been pretty steady at about a third of Americans. It was lower when the country was founded in the late 18th century, a very skeptical time, and it’s lower now, but apart from the 1950s when it nearly hit half the population, it’s usually about a third. For most of the history of this country, participating in a church put you in the minority.
The minority nature of commitment to spiritual community is a reality that is highlighted throughout the Scriptures, too; the whole people of Israel, for example, are almost never faithful. God instead takes small communities or groups of prophets to represent the people, and works with them, or he chooses a remnant – a great Biblical word – a remnant, to stand in for the whole. This concept finds its ultimate fulfillment in Jesus, who stands in for us sinners as the sinless one. He represents us before God, he carries our sin, he is the minority of true humanity that responds perfectly to God, standing in for us, shouldering the burdens that all the rest of us fail to carry, and offering prayer and sacrifice on our behalf.
There is a school of thought about the Daily Office that draws on this idea. You may know that the Office centers around praying through all 150 Psalms. It includes readings and prayers as well, but the Psalms are the backbone of the Office, and we just offer them up day by day to God. The one or two or three people who are here every morning and evening to pray the Daily Office have the job of assuring that this happens. We make sure that the world can count on this fact: on behalf of you, on behalf of this gathering of disciples, on behalf of our neighborhood, on behalf of those who were sleeping on the Lady Chapel step when we opened up at 6:45 AM, on behalf of those who don’t know God or don’t care about God or are angry with him, on behalf of the majority who aren’t there, on behalf of all those and more, this sacrifice of praise and prayer is going up. These Psalms are being prayed through by one or two or three representatives, by a remnant, and just as it has been throughout Scripture, that is enough. It’s more than enough; it’s one of the most important things we do.
So I want to suggest, those of you who are here today, this minority who have come to begin Lent together with the solemn rites of Ash Wednesday, that you try out that way of being here as a representative minority. Of course you have come to Mass today for yourself, and you have your own sins to be sorry for, your own mortality to acknowledge, and your own Lenten discipline to promise God you will observe. I’m not saying don’t do that. Be an individual, but also, in the spirit of the remnant who pray the Office for you here and in the spirit of Jesus the ultimate remnant, our representative before God, I invite you to be a representative here today.
As we pray Psalm 51, listen. Listen to its cries for cleansing, its realization that God knows what is deep within you, its plea to be set free to speak openly from the heart to God. Maybe there will be moments when, as the words pass across your lips, a face of someone comes to mind, someone who needs to be able to speak them, or who aches for what they promise. Someone who has had a loss recently, someone who has suffered a disappointment, someone who has discovered what a total mess they’ve made of their marriage or their career. Someone who is hurting others badly and could, just possibly, be set free. Pray those words of Psalm 51 for them, as an act of intercession. Carry their plight to God in your intention and your heart.
As we pray the Litany of Penitence, surely Anglicanism’s most searching confession of all the ways we sabotage ourselves and others and say no to real life, listen. Confess for yourself, yes, but also be a representative. Confess on behalf of those who aren’t here. Maybe you will hear words that point to things you believe our society needs to confess today, or your workplace needs to confess, or some other group you are part of. You confess it, on behalf of the whole. Maybe the text will evoke a church that failed to live up to the Gospel, a friend’s spouse who deserted the children, a teen who cannot see how valuable they are, or a loved one who disappeared into an addiction. Whatever examples of our fallen world come to mind, you confess, in their name. There is so much brokenness that needs to be acknowledged before God, and so few people who will dare to do it. You do it. You intercede. You represent. You be part of the remnant today.
It is Ash Wednesday, and if you are here, you are in the minority. And that’s why your work in this liturgy is so important. Let us continue now, and move into Lent not just for ourselves, but for everyone else who needs it just as much.
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