Joel 2:1-2, 12-17; Psalm 51:1-17; 2 Corinthians 5:20b-6:10; Matthew 6:1-6, 16-21
Many of us grew up with Lenten seasons that were dark and gloomy. Lent was forty days of sadness, intensified guilt, forced sacrifice and a scraping sense of unworthiness. Mea culpa, mea culpa, mea maxima culpea. My fault, my fault, my most grievous fault. In the season before Easter, it was as if we had never heard of Christ, had no idea that a Messiah had come or, even more crucially, that he had been raised from the dead for the life of the world.
The Lenten season isn’t supposed to be a time to grovel before God and beg for mercy. It is a time to take up the specific practices of giving, prayer, abstinence. We’re to give of the gifts God has given us. We’re driven to pray for ourselves, for those around us, for God’s whole world. We’re attempting to abstain from the things and behaviors that cause us to feel distant from God, be they physical, spiritual or emotional.
These are what we are called to do all year, but sometimes our very humanness gets in the way of our very best of intentions. We mean to start exercising. We’re going to start giving more to charity with our next check. We’re going to write letters, stop complaining, cut down on sugar, pray more, read the Bible, be more grateful… We always have little self-improvement goals, when what we really need is spiritual improvement.
Spiritual improvement begins when we set aside the past, when we acknowledge that we have failed, we rub ashes onto our face, we grapple with our human nature, we ask God to renew us and then we set our faces toward Easter, knowing that our salvation has been achieved and our freedom is in the cross. We walk toward Golgotha, the Place of the Skull, believing that it is not the end of the story. In fact, for those who believe, the journey only begins at the cross.
Lent is the time to reflect on what is in our lives that keeps us from rejoicing in that story. We consider what is in our hearts and lives that keeps us from truly rejoicing in our salvation. It is a time to recognize that we cannot change the past, but we can turn from our sin, even if we know it still affects us, and we can step more confidently on the path that God has stretched before us.
Here’s a very personal example. Due to my husband’s deployment to Iraq, he missed the first four months of our son’s life. No one was happy about this. We can’t change it. There is no way that we can replay the firsts that he missed. He can’t catch up with me on numbers of diapers changed or hours of sleep missed due to breastfeeding. And those four months were important. We can’t pretend they didn’t happen. We can’t undo them. We can’t go back. Nothing will rectify the imbalance.
So we have to forgive. Even though we aren’t upset with one another, we have to forgive the circumstances. We have to let go of what we wish could have been. We have to release our well-intentioned efforts to overcompensate for that time. We are here now and going forward is all we can do.
This is the point of Ash Wednesday leading into the season of Lent. We have to let go of the relationships that didn’t work. We must release the sins for which we have not forgiven ourselves. We say aloud the words we wish we’d said in the past and we let the air float away from us. We make reparations for wrongs we know about.
Most psychologists and doctors say it takes about 30 days to cement a new habit into your life, whatever that daily habit is. Here we have forty days. Forty days to practice giving. Forty days to pray. Forty days to abstain. Forty days, not for show, but to quietly work on opening your heart and mouth, proclaiming your praise to the Lord and rejoicing in your salvation.
We can’t go back, but we can go forward. On the one hand, Ash Wednesday reminds us that as we move forward, we move toward death. Dust we are and dust we will become. On the other hand, Lent reminds us that just beyond that death is life, the life that came through and in Jesus the Christ. These forty days help us to prepare for that life. Even as we ask God for forgiveness and strength to live into our repentance, we begin to see the life that God desires for us, that God has planned for us.
We can’t undo our sins. We can’t go back. Nothing will rectify the imbalance. Nothing, that is, but the grace and mercy of God who is slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love. And we hear the call, through the cross, “It is finished. Come home.” As we repent, as we turn, as we take on new habits and change our spiritual outlook, we walk together and we peer down the road, to where the light everlasting shines for all, where the sign over the empty cross says, “You can come home again.” Amen