February 14, 2024

Ash Wednesday

February 14, 2024

The Rev. R. Allan McCaslin

Readings: Joel 2:1-2,12-17; Psalm 103: 8-14; 2 Corinthians 5:20b-6:10; Matthew 6:1-6, 16-21

From St. Paul’s Second Letter to the Corinthians: “See, now is the acceptable time; see, now is the day of salvation.” I speak to you in the Name of God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.

     Some of you might be surprised to learn that Lent is a season I look forward to every year. While many think of Lent as a time to beat up one’s self for all our wrong choices, our sins, our disbelief, Lent can be a season of joy. It can be a holy time of blessing for those who will observe the true spirit of Lent not just through outward actions, but within their hearts and minds. The true spirit and intention of Lent is about repentance and amendment of life. And repentance should bring joy, healing, and restoration because repentance always offers hope. It calls to remembrance the story of that penitent Prodigal Son who returned home and found not judgment, but welcome, rejoicing, and feasting.

     So, throughout these next 40 days – these days that commemorate Christ’s own 40 day fast in the wilderness in preparation for his world-changing, redeeming ministry – it is my hope that, through scripture, song, and sermon, we will come to understand more deeply and intimately that God’s mercy and grace is endless and always available to those who will put their trust in God. Lent is an opportunity to remember, to rejoice, and to give humble thanks that we know and serve a God not of second chances, or third, or fourth “chances,” but a God of everlasting and eternal chances.

       All of that being said, it does seem like the marking of ashes on our foreheads is exactly what Jesus said very clearly not to do in our reading from the Gospel according to Matthew. Jesus says beware of practicing piety in front of others in order to be seen by them because what matters is not the outward sign, but the visible grace within us, that change within that accompanies true repentance, that accompanies true amendment of life. For repentance and amendment of life to have any meaning, to have any lasting value, it must begin in the heart. And that is what these ashes are supposed to symbolize.

    In fact, in many ways, the donning of ashes is a sacramental act. They become an outward, visible sign of our mortality, our sinfulness, and our need for God’s grace, forgiveness and mercy. This visible and outward isn’t for others to see, but rather, it signifies to us that we know that it is our sin that separates us from God, from one another, and from the Church – Christ’s body. That outward sign is simply an acknowledgement of our need for the inward grace, the inward mercy and forgiveness of God that is eternally available to all who will repent and embrace all of God’s values and then choose to walk in God’s paths. So, while we put on the outward sign of ashes today, they mean nothing unless they mark our hearts as well.

That is what Jesus is talking about in our gospel lesson. He is not condemning the donning of ashes, or suggesting we need to be stoic and keep everything inside when discouraged and face adversity. No, when we hurt we should cry out, cry out loud, and reach out to one another. But such must be an honest cry and not a means for attention. When we are honest about who we really are and truly desire to change our ways, then, and I would say only then, can we experience God’s mercy, forgiveness, and grace that, St. Paul says, is available right now: those gifts of God are ours but we have to ask for them, seek them, and embrace them so deeply they become a part of who we are and how we choose to live.

     Lent invites us to come and receive of God’s grace: to open our hearts and allow the light of Christ by the power Holy Spirit, to shine deeply within us; to let it change and reform us. God is waiting to restore us to health and wholeness. Beloved, “Now is the acceptable time; see, now is the day of salvation.” Let us embrace it with joy and thanksgiving. Amen.