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This homily is #1 in our Lenten sermon series, Essentials of Prayer.
What does it mean to pray? What is prayer? For something so ubiquitous, seemingly everywhere and so common in our lives, have we truly paused to reflect on just what we mean when we say “I am praying for you,” or “Will you keep me in your prayers?” Are we conscious of what we are doing, of what we believe the Spirit is doing, and of what cultural factors are shaping our understanding of prayer–for better or worse?
We are now at the one-year mark in this time of pandemic and cultural shifting. One year of confusion and stress, of uncertainty. One year of being moved out of long-standing patterns and challenged to look at the world, the nation, the church, our communities, and ourselves with fresh eyes. One year of the Spirit’s invitation to discern God’s presence within this movement–and one year to discern the motivations of our resistance to the Spirit’s movement. Of course, both of these aspects–listening for the Spirit and being aware of our resistance–are key to understanding what we mean by “prayer.”
We may think that prayer is simple, but I can assure you it is not easy–at least not in my experience. Throughout this past year, I have wrestled with how to understand God’s presence within the turmoil we have experienced. Where is God in this? I have asked countless times. I have also wrestled with how to understand my own action and response–how to live consciously and compassionately within these circumstances. This question of response and virtuous activity is a hallmark of prayer as well.
Looking at this pandemic anniversary, I wondered what it would be like if we did a sermon series on prayer during Lent. Tonight on Ash Wednesday and each Sunday in Lent, we will share a few thoughts on prayer, in connection with Lent and the texts we will explore. These sermons will then all be compiled together into a resource for the parish and community for those who might find them helpful. If nothing else, it will be a chance for Cynthia and me to focus our intention even more in this holy season of prayer and penitence.
So, to return to the question, what do we think about prayer? And herein lies part of the issue, right? To ask what we “think” about prayer. We so often begin conversations like that, by asking what we “think” about something. Prayer is no exception to the cultural influences we have inherited in what we understand as the Western World.
Since Rene Descartes framed his claim of “I think, therefore I am” in the 17th century, much of our world has put enormous stock in our rational capacity to figure things out, to find solutions to problems, and to plot a course in life. The key to understanding the world and our place in it began to be reduced to the space behind our eyes and between our ears.
I catch myself when I send emails to the staff, vestry, and others when I type “what do you think about…” as if this is the only way to reflect on something or discern a situation. It is so commonplace that it may seem silly to even reflect on it. Reflect we should.
With this thinking function taking pride of place, it is no shock that prayer gets treated the same way a complex philosophical problem is–for that matter prayer gets treated as a philosophical problem. While there is a rational component to prayer, a mental element to the practice, there is so much more involved in our response to God–and participation within God–as beloved creations of God in this world.
Ash Wednesday reminds us of one absolutely vital element of prayer that is actually very easy to overlook: we pray in our bodies and we pray with our bodies. Days like this, officially known as fasts in the Church, like Good Friday as well, remind us of the call to abstain from practices, foods, actions, with and through our bodies. Perhaps this sounds foreign to us as Americans or as Christians with this Western flavor. Why should we refrain from anything? Such a perspective is unfortunate, because it is an absolutely essential truth to remember that our lives take place in our bodies. The loving force of God’s love and the light of the Spirit’s presence, what St. Hildegard of Bingen described as the viriditas of our existence, the life principle that animates us, is embodied here and now.
In Christ’s own life we are called to celebrate the Incarnation of God even as we are called to celebrate the incarnation of our own existence, the enfleshment of God’s creativity and compassion in you, in me, in each and every person you meet. And not just in people, mind you, but in all of life, in all of existence.
Descartes may have claimed “I think, therefore I am,” but perhaps the Spirit would remind us that “I breathe, therefore I live,” or “I touch, therefore I love.” Or I see, or I hear, or I smell, or I taste. Taste and see that the Lord is good.
I remember sitting a while back in Ed and Barbara Taylor’s backyard looking out over the field there at the farm. Ed and I were talking about life, and we said “everything breathes.” Ed smiled and said that, yes, everything breathes, but at different rates. Even mountains breathe, he said, although they do it much more slowly.
I breathe, therefore I live. I can see this in my friends who are trees who live in the forest behind our house.
Can we feel our understanding of prayer expanding a bit when we talk like this? To claim that our bodies have a central role in our practice of prayer? That bodies have worth and should be honored, not only our human bodies but the bodies of all creatures–and the body of our shared planet. These concentric circles of embodiment that call us to a conscious life.
Ash Wednesday helps me remember the central place of bodies–especially, perhaps, this year. We use our bodies in prayer in such a powerful way. We kneel when we pray, and we rub our fingers in the ashes and mark them on our own foreheads tonight. Being physically separated tonight, we are called to modify the rite just a bit to impose ashes on ourselves. We mark our own foreheads with ash this year and say to ourselves “remember I am dust and to dust I shall return.”
I cannot tell you how powerful this is for me, because no one has been more aware of the limitations of my own physical body than I, myself, have been this past year. No one else has felt the anxiety of potentially getting sick like I have in my own body. No one else has felt what you have felt in your own body. If ever there were a year of a collective heightened consciousness of physical existence, it has been this year.
To place a mask on our faces when we leave home. To wash our hands often. To refrain from hugging and touching. To live in our bodies with this increased awareness has made me conscious of the space I inhabit on this planet that we share. And, it was jarring at first, because I realized just how much I had lived in my head. I kept trying to think my way out of the anxiety, but my pulse and breathing rate told me that my body was working to make sense of this situation on another level.
Ash Wednesday reminds us of the central place of our bodies in our Christian practice. But, you may think, by emphasizing that “we are dust and to dust we shall return,” aren’t we really looking beyond our bodies? Aren’t we saying that this body will come to and end? Bodies can’t be that important if they are this fragile and will eventually turn to dust, right?
I would argue otherwise. When we say “we are dust and to dust we shall return,” our intention is not to diminish the role or importance of the body; rather, it is to emphasize our trust in God’s grace in and through our embodiment. Bodies should never be trivialized or diminished. We are reminded that, when Jesus rose from the dead Himself, he did so in a body. He had a body that was different, but he was not a disembodied spirit. He ate and drank with his friends. He walked and spoke with them.
We say, too, in our Creed, that the Church believes in the “resurrection of the body and the life everlasting.” We are promised eternal life in God in an embodied way. Don’t ask me to explain this to you, because I can’t. I have to remember this urge to explain things and the obsession with thinking our way through things, and then I go for a walk in the woods and listen to the trees breathe.
More than anything else this year, Ash Wednesday reminds me of the vital link that our embodiment has with our trust in God’s grace. Even in our dustiness, we are held in God’s compassionate embrace, and we are reminded, like St. Paul says, that “nothing can separate us from the love of God in Christ.”
So, tonight, in the midst of the pandemic, we affirm what we already know far too well: that our bodies are limited, that our physicality is marked by strain and pain, that death is real. Yet we also affirm that, in our embodiment, there is beauty in the fragility. My grandmother’s hand was never more beautiful than when it was wrinkly and covered in spots.
There is a reminder of God’s creative purpose in each and every breath we take–and not just the breaths that we take but the breath that all creation shares.
In our bodies, we trust in God’s grace. Like we say in the commendation at every funeral service, “Even at the grave we make our song. Alleluia, alleluia, alleluia!” (And I know, I just broke a rule of Lent by saying Alleluia. I know you’re not supposed to say Alleluia. Oops, I did it again. I promise I’ll stop saying Alleluia in Lent.)
So, tonight, on this poignant Ash Wednesday, we will begin our Lent. And we will mark our own foreheads with the sign of the cross while we say “I remember that I am dust and to dust I shall return.” And then I will add–and you can too–”And I am loved by God.” That is my prayer today–and every day.
The Rev. Dr. Stuart Higginbotham
February 17, 2021