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.
Many times in the last several months, I have heard folks joke that they feel like the Season of Lent in 2020 never ended, that they feel like they don’t need reminders of mortality, that they don’t feel like they need Ash Wednesday.
I suppose that if that’s all Ash Wednesday is, a generic reminder of our collective mortality, then sure, we don’t necessarily need that right now.
But I wonder if that’s really what Ask Wednesday and the Season of Lent are all about? Is that what we think of this season that leads us to Easter?
Is that what we think of our God, a God who takes a kind of perverse pleasure in reminding us in how fragile, how fleeting our lives are?
Or does this perhaps say something about us, that we hear the message of Ash Wednesday and reduce it to such a hollow and anemic message?
When I look at the vast, overarching message of Scripture, I hear a story, a love story even. I hear about a God whose inner, eternal life is overflowing with vast, abundant, infinite love, so much love that he desires to share it with something that is not him.
I hear a story of his efforts to share that love time and time again in what we call the history of our species. This God loves us like a Father, as we hear in the Psalms.
I hear a story of that love rebuffed over and over again. The story becomes one about our choice for something small and petty compared with that overflowing eternal love.
I hear a story of God descending to live with us in that smallness and pettiness to share in a more intimate way a love shines brighter than all the trinkets we surround ourselves with.
I hear that clarion call to give those things up and be embraced, enfolded in that love.
The message of Ash Wednesday is that we aren’t reconciled to God: we do all sorts of things to avoid his embrace, we trade his love for treasures on earth, or we substitute his love for a cheap piety that we flaunt before others. We call ourselves his followers, but we follow something so hollow and unattractive that we shouldn’t be surprised when few want to join us.
The message of Ash Wednesday is this:
Be reconciled to the God of eternal, overflowing love. Attune your life to the Life, the source of Life.
Store up the treasure of that Life, that Love. Store up that treasure not by keeping it to yourself, but by sharing IT.
Reconcile yourself to God’s love not by flaunting that love as righteousness and piety, but by making your life shine with it, by letting God’s love make your life so attractive to others that they want a piece of that love, too.
Looking at it this way, we need to rethink our Lenten practices.
We talk about giving things up, but why? We talk about making sacrifices, but why?
Jesus tells us to beware practicing our piety before others. Why?
Perhaps Jesus warns us because he knows how easily we loose the point.
We’re not really sacrificing if we think we’ll get something out of it, some kind of public acclaim or fame.
Maybe this year instead of giving something up, we think about giving ourselves up. Or as we say in the post communal prayer, we give ourselves to God’s service.
Maybe this Lent, instead of or in addition to fasting, we fast from ourselves, we give up worrying what others think of us or our neighborhood or our church.
Maybe this Lent instead of making a resolution, we pray instead for God’s resolve to do something with us and through us.
Maybe this year, we give ourselves, our family, our community, our church to God as a sacrifice and we ask God to use us, to show us how we can be his love, how we can embody that love for others.
Ash Wednesday, 2021