Traditionally, or at least as I’ve come to see it, Ash Wednesday has given our world the much needed reminder that we are mortal. While our culture holds the topic of death far away at arm’s length, the Bible speaks frequently about death, so does Jesus, and so do we on Ash Wednesday: “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.” We say as we make the sign of the cross in black ash upon our foreheads.
But this year feels different. Death has regularly been on our minds for the past year. From the fear and grief brought on by this pandemic, to the loss of jobs, sense of security and future plans, death has felt much closer than an arm’s length away. It doesn’t feel like we need a reminder of this in February of 2021, but what we do need, and what Ash Wednesday and the season of Lent ultimately provide to us through a focus on repentance and honest self-reflection is a deepening of our trust and hope resting on the goodness and grace of God, rather than on ourselves.
I grew up in Charlottesville, and when I bump into old friends from school and they hear that I’m a priest now, they honestly give me a pretty funny look. You? Really? You work at a church? They say with their eyes. The combination of confusion on their face along with a quick adjustment of their physical posture communicates that they’re not only judging me a bit, but also feeling judged by me at the same time. And I honestly don’t blame them. The fact is, too often the church is all law and no grace—a schoolhouse of discipline and judgment, disguised as self-improvement. And even within the church, particularly during Lent, we make this same mistake, thinking that the main thrust of Christianity is an opportunity to simply be better by picking up this practice or dropping that habit. We make a mistake when we turn Lent or any part of the Christian life into a structure of control that places our hope for healing and reconciliation into our own hands.
English writer and philosopher Alain de Botton writes about architecture in a similar way, as a literal structure that can suggest or mold us into the better or best versions of ourselves. But in a stroke of humility and profound honesty about the human condition, he says this in his book The Architecture of Happiness; “It seems reasonable to suppose that people will possess some of the qualities of the buildings they are drawn to [or construct for themselves.] …but, whatever the theoretical affinities between beauty and goodness, it is undeniable that, in practice, farmhouses and lodges, mansions and riverside apartments have played host to innumerous tyrants, to characters with a chilling indifference to the disjuncture between the qualities manifested in their surroundings and in their actual lives.”
Thankfully discipline isn’t what Christianity is about. It’s not what Lent is about. And it’s not what repentance is about.
In our reading from Joel today there is a great sense of urgency. “Blow the trumpet in Zion”, we hear over and over again. Something is wrong we can tell, and these people know it. But because of the energy and necessity that leaps out at us from the text, this doesn’t come across as a morose or gloomy description of things. It’s an honest and direct depiction of a people who know that they’re in need.
Sometimes Lent, and its emphasis on repentance, can come across as a bit of a downer. But repentance is not about feeling bad or dejected, it’s simply about honesty. When it’s phrased with the simplicity and beauty of our Prayer Book, repentance and the need for forgiveness is something that no one can deny. Listen to these lines from one of the versions our “Confession”:
we have erred and strayed from thy ways like lost sheep,
we have followed too much the devices and desires of our
we have left undone those things which we ought to
and we have done those things which we ought not to
I’ve yet to meet a person, even one of my old childhood friends, who cannot identify, in some respect, with this sentiment. No honest human experience is free from regret.
We may do our best to ignore this, to shove the anxiety, the guilt and the fear deep down within us, but this Lent I invite you to hear the trumpet blast from Zion, to lay down your guns and simply look at yourself in the mirror with a bit of honesty and vulnerability. What you’ll see is someone in need, someone just like the rest of us, like every single child of God. You’ll see someone who is in need, but you’ll also see someone whose need has been met by the death and resurrection of Jesus, someone who has been met with mercy.
“Yet even now, says the Lord,
return to me with all your heart,” Joel writes,
“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 reminds us that this simple act of repentance, “rend your hearts and not your clothing”, of simple and honest acknowledgment of who we are, this isn’t met by the condemnation and judgment of the world, it doesn’t result in us stiffening up our posture, or projecting out into the world some cold piety in the way that Jesus warns us against. Instead, the grace that we receive from Christ delivers us from fear, it relaxes our shoulders and redirects our hope away from ourselves and towards the God who is faithful, to the God whose outstretched hand will never let us go.
A teacher of mine once described his experience of coming to identify what Christianity is truly about like this:
“I have always admired many of the things Jesus said. Even as a child, I was impressed by his compassion and his love for troubled, wounded people. But I could not make the link between the impressive things he said and did and the idea that he was God’s Son. That seemed beyond belief. To go from inspired wisdom to “God in Christ” was an awesome leap. Later, in college and then after becoming a husband and father, I felt as though I needed him. Or rather, I needed his compassion. In the middle of my own struggles and losses, even impasses, it was not enough to be like him—and my life experience showed that my being like him was impossible. What I craved was his sympathy, his outstretched hand. That hand I experienced. Who he was—the “friend of sinners,” to use the old words—trumped the very excellent things he taught…[As it turned out], my doing of the good deeds he taught actually hinged on the person of Christ saving me, I who had found myself paralyzed and blocked from doing those deeds. When I felt myself loved in my chains, in my paralyses, that feeling of being loved seemed to trigger the very motivation and strength that had failed me before.”
If all we have is Jesus as example or teacher, if we lose sight of the Cross for just a second, then Christianity becomes just another form of self-help that may have good intentions, but in time it’ll be thrown on to the heap with the rest of the self-help systems that don’t ever get to the root of the problem…ourselves, people in need of saving, in need of mercy.
No matter what season or year it is, no matter who you are, what you’ve done or left undone, no matter who or what you’ve lost, the goodness of God and God’s grace is for you. He will never keep us at arm’s length, instead he’s stretched out his arms to us and for us on the cross.
May God bless you with his grace this Ash Wednesday, this Lent. May God bless you at all times and in all places. Amen