Return to the LORD, your God, for he is gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love.Joel 2:13
It may seem odd, but Ash Wednesday has always been an important and meaningful holiday for me. (“Holiday” from the Old English for “Holy Day”). Don’t get me wrong – I love Easter, and Christmas, and Pentecost, along with many other holidays and church festivals. But Ash Wednesday has a special place in my life.
Part of the reason, I think, is that Ash Wednesday is a holiday that is untouched and unspoiled by our culture. It is very different from Christmas or Easter, isn’t it? We don’t have to compete with elves and bunnies today. Our culture doesn’t know what to do with Ash Wednesday. It doesn’t know how to make money from it, in other words. And that is a good thing. In fact, simply by observing Ash Wednesday, we are setting ourselves apart from the culture around us. Simply by being here, we are learning something about what it means to be in the world but not of the world.
Who We Are Without God
But another reason this day is important to me is that it acknowledges something that our world tries very hard to ignore. It acknowledges what might be called the elephant in the room. You know that expression, right? It describes an incredibly obvious fact that everyone is trying very hard not to notice. In this case, the elephant in the room is our mortality. This world is passing, and so are we. All flesh is like grass. But God is eternal. And coming to terms with that can change the course of our life.
Our world tries very hard to ignore this fact, to deny it, and this creates a lot of stress. It turns out to be tiring and stressful to ignore the elephant in the room, whatever the elephant may be. Today, we look at it. We remind ourselves that this world is not our forever home. It will all fade away, like the grass. It will all become ashes and dust. Today, we recognize and embrace the fact that, without Christ, we are merely dust, and to dust we shall return.
Everything that we have in this life is but dust. It is only our relationship with God that is eternal. And that makes our relationship with God the most important thing in our life. Ash Wednesday helps us to stay focused on what truly matters.
An Invitation to Do Something
But that brings me to one more reason why Ash Wednesday is important to me: Because this holiday invites us, and empowers us, to do something about our relationship with God. It invites us to respond to God’s goodness and love by taking our lives of faith seriously. By making it the most important thing in our life.
In fact, in all of our scripture readings for today, we see that the focus is not so much on God’s action as on our action. Other holidays emphasize what God has done. The birth of Christ. His death for our sins. His resurrection. And so on. But today, the emphasis is on us. On our sin, on our mortality. And what we can do to return to the Lord, to respond to God’s endless grace and mercy and love.
First Reading: Joel 2:1-2, 12-17
Listen again to this invitation from the prophet Joel:
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. (Joel 2:12-13)
We do learn something of God in this text, to be sure, of God’s grace and mercy. But the emphasis is on our need to return to God, on our need to fast and even weep and mourn for our sins. That is something that we can do. And it is an important thing to do.
Facing our sins, acknowledging them, and confessing them before God, is important because it has a way of taking away the power of those sins and our guilt. Sometimes, when we face the elephant, it turns and walks away. Ash Wednesday invites us to face our sin, acknowledge it, repent of it, and confess it. And when we do this, we find that we are no longer burdened and even trapped by that sin or our guilt.
Second Reading: 2 Corinthians 5:20b-6:10
In our Second Reading from Paul, we also hear of our need to return to God, but also the urgency of this need. This is not something that we should put off, but something that we need to do today:
We urge you not to accept the grace of God in vain. For he says, “At an acceptable time I have listened to you, and on a day of salvation I have helped you.” See, now is the acceptable time; see, now is the day of salvation! (2 Corinthians 6:1-2)
See? It is time to return to God. It is time to be reconciled to God. It is not too late. But now is the acceptable time. Ash Wednesday pushes its ways into our busy lives and announces: Now is the time. If you have been putting off something in your faith-life, address it. Today is the day.
Gospel Reading: Matthew 6:1-6, 16-21
And, to take it one step further, in our Gospel Reading, Jesus lifts up three specific ways that we can return to the Lord our God. In fact, a close look at this reading shows us that Jesus assumes that we are engaging in these three very important spiritual practices. He just wants to make sure that we are doing them for the right reason. Not to make ourselves look good before other people, but instead to do these things only for God.
Fasting, for example, is a way of giving something up for these forty days. Jesus gave up his divinity and then his life for us. During Lent, we are invited to give something up for him. It might also mean adding something, rather than giving something up. Whatever helps us to return to the Lord our God.
Almsgiving – giving more of our income to the church or to the poor – is the second practice that Jesus talks about in this reading. Almsgiving is a way of acknowledging that all that we have belongs to God. But Jesus invites us to question our motive, with all of our spending. Where is our treasure? There, he says, is our heart. The Lenten discipline of almsgiving helps us to wrestle with that vital question: Where is our treasure?
And, finally, there is the discipline of prayer. When Jesus speaks in this reading about prayer, he assumes that we are spending quality time in prayer. But he also warns us in this reading not to simply go through the motions. Make sure we are taking time for prayer, for alone-time with God. Don’t let others pray for us. Go into your room, and close the door and pray to your Father in secret. No one can live out your relationship with God but you, Jesus is saying to us here. Lent also invites us to wrestle with that reality.
So, prayer, almsgiving, and fasting are all things that we can do, and that help us to return to the Lord our God with every aspect of our life. They are three ways that Ash Wednesday can become an empowering day for us.
In just a few moments, we will do an odd thing: we will be marked with the cross, and reminded that we are dust and to dust we shall return. This is a simple way of acknowledging what this day is all about. It is an odd thing to do, and that alone makes it worthwhile. But it also helps us to remember that there is nothing more important that we have, that we do, or that we are, than our relationship with God.
Our ashes will be in the shape of the cross, reminding us of what Jesus has done for us. But also reminding us of what Jesus calls us to do for him. Take up our cross and follow him.
And so, as we begin this Season of Lent together with the imposition of ashes, I pray that these ashes help us all to treasure Jesus above everything. And that they help us to return again to the Lord our God, who is gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love. To the glory of God. Amen.