Ash Wednesday

The Very Reverend Steve Lipscomb, Dean
Joel 1:1-2, 12-17

Today, we begin the journey. Ash Wednesday marks the start of our annual pilgrimage through Lent and a period of intensive spiritual preparation that brings us to Holy Week and the celebration of Easter. Many Christians will join us in observance of this day by wearing ashes on their foreheads as a symbolic acknowledgment of their mortality and penitence.

Many other Christians, though, would react negatively to such a ritual practice. If they observe Lent at all, they would say that what is important during this penitential period of preparation is not what takes place outwardly but what takes place inwardly.

And, of course, there’s no argument with that. What happens in us, not on us is primary. But as a liturgical, ritualistic church, symbol–visual teaching–and outward action is important to our understanding toward effecting inward change. In any case, we would all agree that attitudes, not ashes, are the crucial concern.

And preparation for the coming season (Holy Week and Easter) is essential during this Lenten one. Everything we believe as Christians is at stake in the crucifixion-resurrection events of Jesus’ life–what we believe about the power of God, about the relationship between good and evil, about resilience of truth, and about the reality of redemption. We dare not amble into worship on Easter Sunday morning, or the week preceding, unprepared for the fullest, most meaningful kind of spiritual experience possible.
Otherwise, we’ll miss that experience. And Easter Sunday will be nothing more than a day for egg hunts, or to complain about having to get up before sunrise for church (if you dare). Preparation is essential.

If we expect to know the joy of Easter morning, we must learn the struggle (and the pain) of the days that precede it. Now–these next 6 weeks– is the time to make preparation for that day.

Perhaps some of us will set aside a special time each day for prayers. Maybe others would do well to observe a fast day each week. Extended reading in the Scriptures and other religious writings can be beneficial to all of us. If we are truly to derive benefit from the Lenten season, then it must be a season of discipline and one that deserves our most careful attention and action. Though repentance is important at any time, repentance takes on added importance now–as we move toward a reliving of the passion and resurrection of Jesus.

In the early church, people dressed in clean, white robes and celebrated purity on Easter Sunday. We need to come to our celebration of the resurrection as spiritually clean as possible. Those who shout with the greatest joy “He is risen!” are those with the greatest realization that they are forgiven.

Repentance means turning around, doing a radical about-face. A truly penitent person ceases walking away from God and begins walking toward God. Often the act is as painful as it is essential.

Just as Jesus set his face toward Jerusalem and with undistracted determination moved toward his destiny there, we must set our faces Godward and accept reconciliation in our relationship with Christ.
–Now is the time for repentance.
–Now is the time to turn from dishonesty in our conversations
— the prostitution of our values, prejudice in our outlooks, violence in our actions, infidelity in relation to our promises, and injustices in society.
–Now is the time to turn toward God; to turn to God; to repent.

And we need not fear. God doesn’t call us to repentance devoid of any encouraging strength or inspiring hope. Just the opposite. Every act of true repentance lays claim to God’s offer of forgiveness and provision of hope.

I once read a moving account of a Lenten observance that took place in a private home. When the priest asked those present to name persons whom they knew were suffering, a little girl seated next to her father named her father. In the silence that followed the young girl embraced her dad. Somewhat embarrassed by his daughter’s comment and action, the father told the little girl to stop: “Your gonna hug me to death,” he said. “No,” the little girl said, “I’m hugging you to life.”

That is a parable of divine reality. As we die to ourselves in repentance, suffering through the confession of our sins, God brings us to life and prepares us for the power and joy of a resurrection-oriented faith.

Listen. Hear and heed the plea of Joel the prophet, “Rend your hearts.” Beginning now, our annual pilgrimage toward Holy Week and Easter, whether or not we allow a smear of ashes to be placed on our foreheads, matters little. What matters most is a proper attitude in our hearts.

Let us encounter brokenness that we may know wholeness, endure the defeat of the crucifixion so that we can revel in the victory of the resurrection.

This year, let us travel to that special spiritual time, not apathetically–not just ritually–but intentionally and conscientiously–prepared and penitent.

It’s Ash Wednesday. Let the journey begin.