Scripture Readings: Joel 2:1-2, 12-17 | Psalm 51:1-17 | 2 Corinthians 5:20b-6:10 | Matthew 6:1-6, 16-21
Yet even now, says the LORD, return to me with all your heart, with fasting, with weeping, and with mourning; rend your hearts and not your clothing. Return to the LORD, your God, for he is gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love, and relents from punishing. (Joel 2:12-13, NRSV)
I love Ash Wednesday.
That might seem a bit strange, considering the heavy nature of this day: marking, as it does, the beginning of the 40 days of Lent with self-reflection, acknowledging sin, and an earnest call for repentance. In truth, it is not a comfortable time, but it is a sacred time… a gift from the LORD to His people and intended for our good.
One facet of this sacred gift which I deeply appreciate, is the way Ash Wednesday invites us to abandon our pretensions. To get really real, with God, yes, and also with each other. To decidedly set aside all of our attempts to pretend that we have finally gotten ourselves to a place where we no longer need mercy; to cease trying to convince ourselves and others, that we’ve got it all under control. To cut through all the pleasantries and face the truth together.
In our Gospel passage taken from the Sermon on the Mount, Christ warns His disciples about the temptations of hypocrisy: of play-acting with our faith… and putting on spiritual performances that does not in truth reflect the reality of our lives. Of using religious practices and holy patterns of life not to seek the LORD or walk in His ways, but to chase our own desires: especially those things that offer us a false sense of superiority: things like honour respect status acceptance. But Ash Wednesday cuts through these false promises and levels the field for us inviting us into a way of life, not grounded in our performance or on the opinions of others, but in the mercy and love of God offered to us all at the foot of the cross.
For the cross is ultimately where Ash Wednesday wants to direct our gaze… it is the suffering and death of Jesus that Lent beckons us to remember. Yes, through the prayers and practices of this sacred season: through our Lenten fasts our self-reflection, our offerings, and repentance, we are asked to take a long honest look at our lives. To acknowledge the truth of our brokenness, our limits and our sins, in order for our eyes to be firmly drawn away from ourselves, from both our so-called successes, and from our faults and failures too, so that our hope and faith might be finally fixed on the merciful face of our Saviour… so that we might turn to Christ, who Himself bore our brokenness, limits, and sins so that we might share in His righteousness.
Ash Wednesday and Lent do not task us with self-perfection or self-mastery. It is not about finding ways to become better people. No. They invite us to honestly turn our eyes in faith to Jesus our Saviour… and to follow Him in the way of God’s suffering, saving love.
This too is a merciful gift to us. As one theologian puts it: "We are able to follow him only because he was able to do what we cannot do, that is, he alone was capable of freeing us from the grip of sin through his cross." (Stanley Hauerwas, Matthew, (Grand Rapids, MI: Brazos Press, 2006), p.75.)
From first to last Ash Wednesday reminds us we cannot save ourselves… in truth, we are dust, and to dust we shall return. But it reminds us this in order that we might cling always to our Saviour. To set aside all that would keep us from His gracious arms, and together find ourselves embraced by His steadfast love and mercy, offered to us all through the blood of His cross.
I love Ash Wednesday… because it reminds us of the depths of God’s love. This Lent may the Holy Spirit grant that our eyes be always fixed on Jesus, and may our lives be remade by His mercy and love. Amen.