Wednesday, February 14, 2018

Ash Wednesday

February 14, 2018

Joel 2.1-2,12-17; 2 Corinthians 5:20b-6:10; Matthew 6.1-6,16-21

 + Over the last week or so of this two and half week dark journey I have been taking since my mother died, I have been listening to one song over and over again. I do things like this. When bad things happen in my life, I end up listening to a lot of music. And I usually end up listening to one song more than any other.

The song of choice this time is one you would not expect as we enter the Lenten season.  The song I have been playing over and over again is a version of “In the Bleak Midwinter” by the Indie group, Animal Collective.

Yes, I know: “In the Bleak Midwinter” is a Christmas carol. But Animal Collective only sings the first and last stanza of the carol, which really is kind of perfect, in some ways, for Lent.  The words especially of the first stanza of that poem sure do speak perfectly to the mood many of us probably have had as this long winter keeps us in its stony grip:

In the bleak midwinter, frosty wind made moan,
Earth stood hard as iron, water like a stone;
Snow had fallen, snow on snow, snow on snow,
In the bleak midwinter...

Let me tell you, those words sure have been speaking loudly and clearly to me these last few, very hard weeks in my life since my mother died.  And besides, my mother really loved Christina Rossetti.

So, somehow, it all comes together. These hard things, these difficult things are what we are dealing with in this season.  Ash Wednesday and Lent is all about facing the reality of our mortality, after all. Of looking hard into the empty eye sockets of a skull.

Lent is a time for us to be sober, to be awake and aware, to face the harsh realities of our existence separated as we are, in this moment, from God’s nearer Presence.

We face the fact that, as we journey through this “vale of tears,” we are all fallible. We all fail—and fail miserably—at times in our lives.  And when we do, it is painful. It hurts. This time of Lent is a time for us to face those failings in our lives. I think that’s why some of us kind of resist Lent when it comes around again.

But, recognizing our failures for what they are is a way forward. We are all fallible human beings. We will continue to fail at times. We will never, on this side of the veil, be perfect. And if perfection is our goal, we have already set ourselves up for failure.

But failure too should not be the goal.  Striving to learn from our failures is the goal. Changing and growing and moving beyond our failures is our goal. A successive evolution from failure to redemption is our goal.

Lent is a time for us to think about our failures, to ponder them, but not to revel in them. And it certainly is not a time to beat ourselves up over them.

Tonight, Ash Wednesday, is a time for us to think about that ultimate moment in our lives, that puts all of our failures into keen perspective. Tonight is the night to think about the fact that we will all, one day, die.

In this service we are reminded in no uncertain terms that one day each every person in this church this evening will stop breathing and will die.  Our bodies will be made into something that will be disposed of—either by being cremated and being buried in the ground.

But, all of this can—and more importantly, should—be something in which we find ourselves opened up to a new understanding and new perspectives of the world and our relationship with God.

That essentially is what Ash Wednesday and the season of Lent are all about. It is a time for us to stop, to ponder, to take a look around us and to take a long, hard, serious look at ourselves, our failures, and our relationship with God.

None of this is easy to do. It isn’t easy to look at where we’ve failed in our lives and in our relationship with others. It isn’t easy to look at ourselves as disposable physical beings that can so easily be burned to ashes or buried.  It isn’t easy to imagine there will be a day—possibly sooner than later—when life as we know it right now will end.  It isn’t easy to shake ourselves from our complacent lives. Or, as I’ve discovered recently, to have my complacent life shaken from me.

Because we like complacency. We like predictability. We like our comfortable existence.

However, we need to be careful when we head down this path. As we consider and ponder these things, we should not allow ourselves to become depressed or hopeless.  Remembering our failures is depressing and can trigger depression or despair.  Our mortality is frightening.

Yes, it is sobering and depressing to think that this moment we find so normal and comfortable will one day end.  It is sobering to realize that everything in our life is ultimately temporary.  

But this season is Lent is also a time of preparation.  It is a preparation for the glory of Easter—and for the eternity of Easter.

It would be depressing and bleak if, in the end, all we are known for our failures.  But, the reality is this: we will not be known for our failures before God. Not in the end. If death does anything, it obliterates our failures, those moments when we fell short. That is my hope. Yeah, maybe I am the eternal optimist, even in the midst of mourning and grief.

But that’s also what it means to be a Christian, after all.  Even in mourning, even wading through the thick, dark waters of grief, we can still hope.  Even in the midst of Lent, we can be optimists.

Yes, we will hear, in a few moments, those sobering words,

“You are dust and to dust you shall return.”

And those words are true. But, the fact is, ashes are not eternal. Ashes are not the end of our story. Ashes are temporary.

Resurrection is eternal.  Our life in Christ is eternal.  Our failures are temporary. Our life is eternal in Christ.  All we do on this Ash Wednesday is acknowledge the fact that we are mortal, that our bodies have limits and because they do, we too are limited.

So, it’s not a matter of denying our bodies or seeing our bodies as sinful, disgraceful things. The same can be said of our failures. Our failures make us who we are. We are not defined by them.

But we are formed in the fires of our failures and shortcomings.  It is not a matter of dwelling on our failures in this life.

Rather, it is a time for us to look forward, past our failures, to resurrection, to renewal, to rebirth.  It is time for us, as we heard in our reading from the Prophet Joel, to

“return to [God] with all our hearts,
With fasting, with weeping, and with mourning;”

It is time for us to “rend our hearts…and return to our God, who is gracious and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love.”

It is time for us to, as we always do, “make to God of our grain offering and our drink offering. “

It is time, as Jesus tells us in our Gospel reading, to quietly go about our Lenten discipline, to give in secret, to pray to our God in our rooms with the doors shut, to fast with oil on our heads and washed faces.

As we head into this season of Lent, let it truly be a holy time. Let it be a time in which we recognize the limitations of our own selves—whether they be physical or emotional or spiritual.

But more than anything, let this holy season of Lent be a time of reflection and self-assessment, as fasting and giving. Let it be a time of growth—both in our self-awareness and in our awareness of God’s presence in our life.

As St. Paul says in our reading from this evening:

“Now is the acceptable time. Now is the day of salvation.”

It is the acceptable time. It is the day of salvation.  Let us take full advantage of it.

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