Joel 2:1-2,12-17 Psalm 103 2 Corinthians 5:20b-6:10 Matthew 6:1-6, 16-21
The Ash Wednesday readings initiate the season of Lent with calls us to confession and repentance, prayers of forgiveness, and invitations to fasting. Everyone who has struggled with a great undertaking knows the importance of regularly taking stock of where we are and who we are. It’s good to periodically stop and assess our resources, and our energies. During Lent we begin to again focus on living out our spiritual lives, the inner lives of all Christians.
Today’s Gospel reading is taken from middle of the Sermon on the Mount. It addresses the focus of Ash Wednesday and the season of Lent by naming the disciplines and practices that help prepare us for the events of Holy Week and Easter.
Lent is a great opportunity for evaluating our spirituality – a pause, a retreat from life’s busy surface to go to its solemn depths. There, we can consider our baggage and discriminate between the necessary and the unnecessary. It is a time to embrace those things that must be treasured and to dismiss others. Most of us can benefit from this practice of examining our spiritual lives. We can benefit from re-determining those things which are essential to feeding us, renewing us, redirecting us, those things that help us turn back to God.
But what are we to do with these words from the final section of the Sermon on the Mount? Don’t be like the hypocrites and be showy about our faith – about our efforts to be better apostles of Christ. Let the giving of alms, praying, and fasting be done in secret. Then, we get these big black ashes on our head, or a black smudge cross on our foreheads, how is that in secret? Is it a different kind of dandruff? The cluster of black is pretty obvious. There is the choice of shaking our head and hair or wiping off our foreheads as soon as we are able, so no trace of the ashes is left. But also, there is the choice of the symbolic interpretation of the importance of the ashes. The ashes may remind us of how we live our life of faith. How are we to live a disciplined Christian life in faith and with passion while not being seduced by the rewards of culture? The ashes ground us in that pursuit. We are reminded and those we encounter are reminded that we are Christians. As Christians, we try to live our lives following the teachings of Jesus. Perhaps, they will know we are Christians by the way we live our lives, not the dirt on our head.
The word “Lent” means “long spring days.” Lent begins the journey toward the cross, toward the tomb, and the mysterious, unending joy of those who found it empty. Nora Gallagher tells us, “The goal of Lent is to bring the journey’s geography into the self, to bend beneath it, to allow the soul to find its narrative within it, to claim its unfolding story.”
Gallagher reminds us that on Ash Wednesday, we enter the desert with Jesus. We become the woman at the well who demands, “Give me some of that living water.” We are the blind man begging for sight, the sisters of the dying brother, the poor and the lame crying out from the alleys, “Jesus, remember me.”
Ash Wednesday’s ashes are made of the palm fronds saved from Palm Sunday past and burned. In this first ironic symbol of Lent, we are marked at the beginning of the journey with the scorched remains of its end. Lent is a time of repentance, of metanoia, a Greek word for “change of mind”. Metanoia is a New Testament term for repentance that indicates sorrow for sin and turning from sinfulness to righteousness through Jesus Christ, but it is more, more than repentance. It is about a change of mind, a change of heart.
Lent is the time to simplify our lives, to be touched by God, so that we may touch the lives of others. We used to only focus on giving up something that we really liked, enjoyed, coveted, something that was important to us, during the forty days of Lent. In recent years, we have been encouraged to add something, to enrich our daily practice – daily devotions, making a confession, Morning Prayer, Wednesday Evening Prayer, Compline, listening to music, centering prayer, self examination and God awareness, reading and listening. A time of looking for resources of wisdom that will equip us to live authentically as God’s people, and inspire us to live in God’s grace.
Jesus’ primary concern was to be obedient to God, to live constantly in God’s presence. He encourages the single-minded commitment to God and to God alone. God wants all of our heart, all of our mind, and all of our soul. It is this unconditional and unreserved love of God that opens our hearts to care for others. God asks for surrender, and with it comes the true joy in letting God love us the way that God wants.
A good spiritual life connects us to where we come from, even in the midst of where we are now. It gives us roots. That is what Lent does for us. It’s about reaching back to remember who we are even while we keep on becoming more than we were. Lent is one of Christian practices that binds the faith community to one another and to its beginnings. It ties us to the core of us that is not changing, that does not fail. We are not alone. We walk with the church throughout the world on this journey of renewal. We walk, too with the One who has gone before us to bring us home again.
Ash Wednesday confronts us with what we have become and prods us to do better. Jesus’ teachings on the Sermon on the Mount - that position, authority and money are not important in God’s Kingdom. Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. When there is less of us in the picture, there is more room for God. That we are to be salt and light. Like adding salt to our food, we are to add flavor, to add seasoning to the lives of our friends, family, coworkers. Don’t hide our lights, but to become beacons of light, harbingers of hope for their journey toward God – salt and light. Love one another, love our enemies by turning the other cheek. We are told to look at our actions, our priorities in living out a life of faith. Jesus’ teachings challenge us, prepare us to reevaluate how we are living our lives.
Ash Wednesday is about opening our hearts one more time to the Word of God in the hope that, this time, hearing it fresh, that we might allow ourselves to become new. It is a call to prayer, to liturgy, to self-examination. It is about rising to the full statue of human reflection and accepting the challenge to become fully alive, fully human rather than so self centered that we fail to see others and fail to see God in them.
The voice of Lent is a call to remember who we are and where we have come from and why. It is the cry to become new again, to live on newly created no matter what our life has been like until now. The voice calls us to live fully. It is even more than that. It is the promise of mercy, the guarantee of new life. Lent is our salvation from the depths of nothingness. It is our guide to the more of life. This Lent, may we all get a glimpse of and grab hold of God’s promise and God’s presence. In our efforts may we say, “Come Holy Spirit, open wide the eyes of our hearts, dust the cobwebs of complacency from our minds and sweep away the residue from the corners of our hearts, that we may be filled with Jesus - the love, compassion, mercy and strength of Jesus. Amen.