Ash Wednesday Meditation (taken from the Ash Wednesday service at RMC on February 18th)
I’d like to say a few words about what Ash Wednesday/Lent is for...and maybe even a few about what it’s not for. Lent is a time to look at the reality of who we are. It’s a time to assess the places where we, like Adam and Eve, hide from God and others. It’s a moment where we pay special attention to the places we avoid wrestling with pain, sin and fear. Lent is a time to shine the lighthouse beam on particular areas of the waters, so that we are not dashed upon the rocks of comfort and unrepentance. It is a mercy to our souls. However, Lent is not a time to emotionally flog ourselves or perform. If you find self-examination leading you to either shame on the one hand or self-righteousness on the other, know that you are either headed toward a very dark oppressive place or toward deeper faith in your own behavior modification.
None of these are God’s desire for you during this season. Our confession of sin through this Lenten walk, as in the rest of the Church year, leads us to a place of deeper freedom in God’s forgiveness and his power and love to make us clean and whole. So, be wary of the hiss that you will almost certainly hear in the desert of Lent. It will tell you things--half truths--it will leave you wallowing in shame or boasting in yourself. May that hiss be met with the truth of Christ’s atonement for you.
Secondly, as we confess our waywardness and our bent to leave the one who loves us, we are freed to move toward our neighbors in sincerity and love. We can relate to those struggling outwardly to keep it together because we recognize that inwardly we are a mess. That, I too, have chinks in my armor. We can look around and notice opportunities God provides us to see brokenness and hopelessness, and we are invited to care for the least of these. So Lent is useful in turning our attention away from our own cravings for comfort and ease and toward learning to see and hear others well, in order that we might care for the physical and spiritual needs of those around us.
Lent is a time to not emphasize works-righteousness as though we are earning God’s favor somehow, but rather a time to emphasize simplicity for the sake of others. That’s the reason to fast or cut back on certain lifestyle choices. In order to be outward-focused and allow enough emotional room to breathe, thus seeing ourselves and others more clearly. And prayerfully to move toward living into God’s design for us who are made in his image.
Lastly, Lent provides an opportunity to reflect on our mortality. Our culture celebrates and aspires to eternal youth. It rightly loathes death, but misses the rest of the story--that through death is brought true life. So, to participate in Lent, something so somber and penitent, is foreign and strange. But Christianity does not gloss over the difficulties of our existence. Death does not show partiality - everyone who draws a first breath will one day breathe their last. Just in the last few months, actor Robin Williams and ESPN personality Stewart Scott died suddenly; it seems even fame, celebrity, and wealth could not stave off the final curtain call of death. Hebrews 9 says “it is appointed for man to die once and after that comes judgement.” So, in Lent, we anticipate death, not because it has the final word over us, but because facing its reality deepens our longings and our hunger for Resurrection, for Easter. Our hope is engaged more deeply when we allow this season to turn down the noise of all the messages we hear at work, home, and through media...and we sit and listen. And, as we do so, I pray that our church will boldly and honestly engage each other and a very broken world dying to be rescued. Dying for a promise stronger than death. Dying to believe that one day Jesus will wipe every tear from our eyes and will indeed make all things new.
In a few moments, I will ask you to come forward and receive the sign of the cross in ash on your forehead. It is a haunting and jarring symbol of our desperate condition. In a world which boasts of power and might and possessions and status, the ashes remind us of what all things will crumble to in decay. Ash is a sign of living in the not yet- that the world is stained by sin and brokenness. Yet the ashes are applied in the shape of the cross- the cross Jesus bore for you and for me. It’s the only means for escaping the permanency of death and ash. You see, our last enemy, death, has been destroyed by the perfect work of Jesus Christ. He raided death and destroyed its power. His resurrection heralds consolation and joy in the midst of our mortality and limitations. So during Lent, we remember that our true home is not in this world, but in the New Heavens and New Earth. You will return to dust, but be raised in glory and power at the last day. With these ashes you are reminded who you are and whose you are. “You are dust, and to dust you shall return.” But also, by the death of Christ, you become the righteousness of God. In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.