Isaiah 58:1-12; Matthew 6:1-6, 16-21
In the Name of God: Father, Son and Holy Spirit, the One God. Amen
One of the delightful things I did while I was Dean of St. George’s College in Jerusalem was to take our course members to either the ancient city of Corazim or to Hatzor to show them ancient houses. You will recall that Corazim is one of the “woe cities” when Jesus says “Woe to you Corazim” and that Hatzor was a city which was utterly destroyed by Joshua at the time of the conquest. At both of these cities we have the archaeological remains, in the case of Corazim fourth-century houses, and in the case of Hatzor remarkable first century houses. These houses give us an understanding of what our Gospel for today is all about when Jesus tells a person to go into a room/closet to pray. It is really difficult to understand what that text is all about, if one does not know how ancient houses were built.
Let me take you today to Roman Byzantine Palestine to look at the houses of both Hatzor and Corazim. An ancient house in the first century was quite small. Many of the rooms in the house were no larger than 2 feet by 6 feet. Some of the rooms had windows and some had no windows at all. When one looks at a house like this, one quickly realizes that the activity of the family would not take place inside the house, instead in the courtyard of the house.
Now the courtyard was quite large. No one would ever go into one of the rooms of the house unless one were trying to escape the elements or for protection. In other words, all the family activities took place outside in the courtyard.
Therefore the Gospel for today has a very special meaning because, when it is seen in the context of the courtyard, Jesus tells the people to go into the room/closet, that is, into one of the tiny rooms of the house, to pray. In Jewish tradition, it is only the men who were called upon to pray. Women were not called upon in a formal way to pray because the routine of their daily life was seen as a prayer in itself.
However, men were called upon to pray. If the men prayed in the courtyard of the house, then all the family activities would have to stop. This means mamma, grandma, and aunts who were preparing meals and taking care of children, etc., would have to stop all activities if daddy or grandpa began to pray in the courtyard. Therefore, Jesus tells his readers in today’s gospel, not to stand out in public, i.e., in the courtyard of your house, but to go to a closet/room. Therefore Jesus’ instructions here carry a very practical application for not only is Jesus telling us not to disrupt the family life, but Jesus is also calling upon the people not to make a public show of their piety. To stand out in the courtyard disrupts family life and therefore Jesus tells us to go into the room/closet to pray. Never do I come to an Ash Wednesday service and hear the Matthew Gospel read that I am not immediately taken back to Corazim and Hatzor where this text really comes alive as we look at the ancient house.
Lent should rightly begin with the recognition of all Christians that we are far from God and yet, that we are called to be closer. Lent helps us recognize that we are imperfect and yet we are called to be perfect. In short, Lent is a time for recognizing and evaluating the gulf between our humanity and God, between the soul and its creator, whose longing is for one another. It is a time to return to basics, to a powerful, liberating gospel message that is active and alive. A radical gospel, a reconciled humanity is our goal. Lent is a time to pray, whether in a “room/closet” or in a beautiful church like the National Cathedral.
In six weeks, on Good Friday, we are going to be praying the Stations of the Cross as we participate in Jesus’ last journey through the Old City of Jerusalem. We will be stopping at the Sixth Station to pray at Veronica’s Station, where Veronica comes out of her home to wash the face of Jesus as he carries his cross to Calvary/Golgotha. Maybe this Lent it might be helpful to keep our eyes focused on Veronica and the gracious generosity that Veronica shows to Jesus by washing his face.
Would we have washed Jesus’ face on that first Good Friday? After all, that morning Jesus was not the beautiful, handsome strapping young man this is so often pictured in Christian art. Instead, he was despised and rejected, sentenced to death on the cross, as a criminal and as a prisoner.
As Jesus carried his cross through the dusty city streets of Jerusalem, Veronica came out of her home to wash the face of Jesus. That was a brave thing for her to do because the religious and political authorities of the day would not have been pleased by Veronica’s actions.
The name Veronica means “icon”, it means “image”. We are created in the icon, in the image of God. This Lent we are called to live in that image, in that icon of Jesus. All of us are experiencing, in one way or another, a terrible economic situation. Many people are losing jobs, many are seeing their secure retirements evaporating in thin air, portfolios are halved. The stock market fell last Monday to its 1992 high. Not any of us are untouched.
As we prepare for this Lent we can not brush aside these concerns, but might we all come to have a greater awareness of what it means to live in the image, in the icon of Jesus. Might we all be Veronicas as we wash the face of Jesus:
-be it the face of a prisoner
-be it the face of one who has just lost a job
-be it the face of one who is living in anxiety because of the stock market
-be it the face of one who has just learned that she has terminal cancer
We are challenged to live fully in this 2009 world, a world where we will confront Jesus on the streets (as well as in our own churches), a world where we will confront Jesus in the market place (as well as in our own churches), a world where we will confront Jesus in today’s Darfurs and Palestines (as well as in our own churches).
I believe we have a unique vocation and ministry as we balance the conscience of our hearts and the use of our many treasures. We are vital to the well-being of our global brothers and sisters who share the same experience of God-in-Christ that you and I do on this Ash Wednesday. Our baptism immerses us in a world of sin and strife, of war and conflict, of hate and bigotry, of economic travail. Our baptism then fortifies and unites us as a community to be a light in that darkness.
Today we join our brothers and sisters around the world who come to receive their ashes, ashes which represent our humanity, a humanity in Christ that will lead us from death to resurrection and eternal life. A humanity in Christ that will allow us to be a Veronica.
In the name of God. Amen.