Ash Wednesday 2013 “ February 13
Joel 2:1-2,12-17; 2 Corinthians 5:20b-6:10; Matthew 6:1-6,16-21
Robert C. Wisnewski, Jr.
Rend your hearts and not your clothing, the prophet Joel tells his listeners. Return to the Lord, your God. He himself knows whereof we are made; he remembers that we are but dust, proclaims the psalmist. Be reconciled to God, Paul tells the Corinthians. Beware of practicing your piety before others in order to be seen by them, Matthew adds. Pray and do your good works quietly and humbly. Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, but store up for yourselves treasures in heaven. The work given to us today is a private work. It is work each of us must do on our own.
Ash Wednesday is upon us, a day when we let go of judging how much of a mess the lives of others may be, a time when we ask ourselves what may be amiss in our own lives. It’s a time when we are encouraged to face our limitations. We are all sinful. We will all die. We are all powerless to control things outside ourselves. Until we lose the faÃ§ade and face all that, life is not what it is intended to be. So you will come forward and we will mark your forehead with an ashen cross and that will get your attention, probably because we don’t do it all the time. It’s sacramental, it’s an outward expression of what we are trying to do on the inside. We come forward in repentance, to offer an apology for that which is amiss, to acknowledge that we can only get so far in life on our own.
But honestly that’s the easier thing we ask you to do on this occasion. Saying that we are truly sorry and are powerless to rid ourselves of the things that keep us stuck is hard enough. But it’s really easier than what we ask you to do the second time you approach the altar. There we give you Holy Communion and we ask you to know that you are forgiven. Then we send you out into the world to act like you are forgiven, not to carry around your old burdens, but to know deep in your heart that you are reconciled by the loving act of Christ on the cross.
We can say we are sorry for our sins. We can admit our limitations. It’s not easy but we can do that. What we have absolutely no power over is the gift of forgiveness that God offers us daily. I can apologize to you but your forgiveness of me is totally up to you. We can confess our sins but God’s decision to forgive is his alone. And what we ask you to do today, even more than knowing you are sinful, is to know you are forgiven. It’s something we find hard to accept.
One of the other sacramental acts today will be done by you at a time of your own choosing. At some point today you will wipe off those ashes. You can do that here before you leave the building or you can leave them on longer if you prefer. But sometime you’ll wipe them off. When you do, you have the opportunity to claim the forgiveness of Christ more deeply. As you wipe off those ashes, remind yourself that Christ has wiped away your sinfulness. You are forgiven.
Maybe during the season of Lent that stretches ahead you can find ways of wiping clean your heart, letting go of the shame or guilt that is interfering with your life. At some point we all must take stock, realize that our life simply is what it is, and move forward in God’s grace. It’s not so much our sinful acts that hold us back in life. What holds us back even more is not realizing that God has already forgiven us. We still see ourselves all smudgy and dirty. God sees us as clean and whole. As you wipe clean your foreheads, know that Christ creates in us a clean heart.
We begin with the important work of admitting our sinfulness but we end with the more important work of believing that we are forgiven. We invite you to the observance of a holy Lent. We invite you to lay down your burdens and start anew in Christ’s love.