Joel 2:1-2,12-17 Psalm 103 2 Corinthians 5:20b-6:10
Matthew 6:1-6, 16-21
Barbara Brown Taylor says that Ash Wednesday is the day we Christians attend our own funeral. Whether we receive ashes in the sign of the cross on our foreheads or not, the liturgy reminds us of our death. “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.” Even in traditions that don’t use ashes, the name of the day remains the same. Everything that is said or done in this service happens in the presence of ashes, which offers us a wonderful opportunity to talk about death, before our own death. To talk in a time when we are not preoccupied with mourning the loss of a family member or friend.
Ash Wednesday’s focus on human mortality softens the language we hear today. We speak of sin and hear God’s call to turn from sin. But the ashes on our foreheads make our human frailty as much to be mourned as those sinful acts of rebellion that draw us away from God. Sin is a condition as well as an act. We suffer from being made less than God. We suffer because we feel ourselves apart from God. Our separation from God is sometimes not all our fault.
A lot of people don’t want to talk about sin or why we experience the idea of sin as being a burden. It can be immensely freeing to acknowledge, “I am a sinner.” I have a number of things in my life that are not as I wish they were. Some of them are not my fault, but some of them are.
The good news is that we don’t need to conceal the fact that we sin. We don’t need to struggle to present ourselves before God or anyone else as being spotless. We are far from spotless, and God knows it. We don’t have to be ashamed of our load of sin. We don’t have to bear it alone. As a matter of fact, we don’t have to bear it at all. We don’t have to stay right where we are, doomed to repeat the same destructive behaviors again and again, without ever learning from our mistakes. It is never too late to change, and the weight of change is never too heavy for God to lift off of us.
Don’t like something in yourself? Want something to be different? Today is a good day to begin a new relationship with that old enemy. Of course, if you have lived with it for a long time, it may take time, but all things are possible for God. God created us for good and all that we need to be every good thing that we can is within us. Lent is about that level of awareness of who we are, who we have been and who God wants us to be. Lent is our inward journey to find God within us. Sometimes, we lose sight of God when we get so distracted by our daily lives, our daily challenges.
The vases on the altar are to remind us that we are empty vessels for God to fill. That may mean that we have to get rid of some of our “stuff” to make more room for God. Lent is that journey. The crown of thorns is a powerful reminder that we are walking with Christ toward Jerusalem and the cross. But we know the rest of the story that we celebrate later in the resurrection. Today we begin the journey.
Matthew reminds us that there are still things we do to dig our own graves with God. Jesus focuses on giving alms, praying, and fasting, contrasting righteous acts that are done to be showy in hopes of gaining rewards from observers, with those same pious acts done quietly so that no one sees but God. Personal reward is the motivation in both cases, yet Matthew’s Jesus knows better than to argue with his self-interested listeners about that. It is enough for Jesus to suggest God’s reward will be more valuable in the end than the human kind, so that his listeners at least shift their treasure hunt heavenward.
When Matthew mentions “hypocrites” who disfigure their faces when they are fasting, the literal meaning of the word he uses is “stage actors.” This may leave us wondering if it really is a good idea to wear the ash crosses on our foreheads. Isn’t that a little showy? The moment someone notices your cross in the grocery store, or at work after the service, won’t that take the place of God’s reward? These questions direct us to the basic difference between Matthew’s culture and ours. Matthew wrote to a culture in which religious observance was common, obligatory and relatively uniform. Many of us today live in a culture in which religious observance is peculiar, optional and decidedly influenced by the world.
Imagine what Matthew’s Jesus would say to the disciples in a different situation. In Matthew’s world, keeping your religious practice to yourself would have been countercultural. What kind of religious behavior might be equally countercultural for us? How about the use of crosses as jewelry or ornamentation instead of as a sign of our devotion to Jesus? We see crosses everywhere, but don’t really know what they mean to the people who wear them.
The word “hypocrite” once meant a person who made a great show of his or her religious practice. But, today, some religious folks use the same word to describe someone whose practice seems nonexistent. In this changed cultural context, is there something to be said for wearing our ash crosses to the grocery store? A lot can be said about our piety when we are open and honest about who God is for us.
As a Jew himself, Matthew uses the word, “hypocrite” to set up a stark distinction between two kinds of religious behavior. Much like he does elsewhere with wise and foolish maidens, or sheep and goats. The whole idea is to discourage us from doing what we do for human approval. It is the intentions of our heart to worship God and not to impress others with how we do that.
Ash Wednesday begins the season of Lent. Lent is a time for us to take stock of our lives – who God is for us, who we are for God and where do our relationships fall in line with God’s will for us. Heavy stuff, but necessary stuff. It is often important to call things to a halt in our lives, and examine our resources, our energies, our gifts, our focus. The living out of our spiritual lives, the inner lives of Christians is the important business of Lent.
On Ash Wednesday, we enter the desert with Jesus. We become the woman at the well who demands, “Give me some of that 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 the past Palm Sunday 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. In a few moments, you will be invited to come forward to receive the ashes. The words will be spoken over you, “Remember that you are dust and to dust you shall return” as the sign of the cross is made on your forehead. Maybe, at first, you feel the human connection, the touch, the warmth, along with the uncertainty. It is in those moments that we experience the invitation to rethink our true identity as a child of God, kept alive by God’s good gift of breath. “Remember that you are dust and to dust you shall return” is more like a blessing than anything else. It is our realization of God’s presence in our physical lives and the hope and promise found in our eternal lives.
As we return to our seats, we try not to look at each other’s foreheads. There is an initial awkwardness in not recalling how we do this and how we feel from year to year. Then a sense of awareness comes, God’s presence in the ordinary, and we see eye to eye, heart to heart, the mark of Christ and mark of our own mortality. It is not seen as being showy in showing off our piety for all to see. It is more a sign of our awareness of God’s presence.
Lent calls us to examine our lives for pride, possessions, insensitivity, control, power, and self indulgence. Lent calls us to surrender. The word, “surrender” can be enough of a prayer for us at the beginning of Lent. More of a laying down of resistance to God, who loves us infinitely more than we can imagine. When we surrender, we choose to let go of one thing to better reach out in trust for another. It is in that moment of letting go of something in ourselves that we are able to grasp a new life in Christ. What we are called to give up in Lent is control itself.
God is calling us into a deeper relationship. The response to that invitation calls for surrender, discipline and determination. I invite you to begin each day in this season of Lent with the Prayer of Abandonment, printed in the insert for you to take home.
It seems good to pray the words of this prayer often. Jesus’ primary concern was to be obedient to God, to live constantly in God’s presence. His claim is radical in asking for 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, not as something that distracts us from God, but as an expression of our love for God. God asks for surrender, and with it comes the true joy in letting God love us the way that God wants. Where is God leading you during this Holy Lent?
Prayer of Abandonment
I abandon myself into your hands,
Do with me what you will.
Whatever you may do, I thank you;
I am ready for all, I accept all.
Let only your will be done in me,
and all your creatures.
I wish no more than this,
Into your hands I commend my soul;
I offer it to you with all the love of my heart,
for I love you, Lord,
and so need to give myself,
to surrender myself into your hands,
without reserve and with boundless confidence.
For you are my Father.
Charles de Foucauld