This was my sermon for Grace Anglican Church upon Ash Wednesday, 18 February 2015.
How shall we explain Lent?
The traditional Old Testament reading for Ash Wednesday, Joel 2:12-17, puts it best. It’s as if it’s speaking straight to us today.
“Yet even now,” declares the LORD, “return to me with all your heart, with fasting, with weeping, and with mourning; and rend your hearts and not your garments.”
It starts out with a call to repentance, which is basically par for the course as far as Christian worship is concerned. Every day we are to take up our cross and follow Christ, which means every day we must die to self, repent of our sins, do whatever we can to refocus ourselves upon Jesus.
Some Christians ask, however, “do we need to fast anymore? I know God commanded the Israelites to fast at certain times, but now that we have the Gospel of Christ, do we still need it?” Our Gospel reading (from Matthew 6) this evening helps us answer that question. Our Lord taught us how to fast. He didn’t give much information or context, he simply said, “when you fast…” It is up to us, as his body, the Church, to figure out when we ought to fast together. Joel continues:
Return to the LORD your God, for he is gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love; and he relents over disaster. Who knows whether he will not turn and relent, and leave a blessing behind him, a grain offering and a drink offering for the LORD your God?
As we move further through the writings of Joel we find that he anticipates the Gospel itself: God does indeed show grace and mercy, he did indeed turn and relent from punishing his people by sending his Son to perform the sacrifice required for our sins. As a result, we are able indeed to turn and relent, to receive God’s blessing and return to him offerings of our own: even the holy and living sacrifices of ourselves, once we’ve been made clean in Christ. But there it is – once we’ve been made clean in Christ we are able to offer ourselves to him as a holy sacrifice. Our continual repentance and cleansing from sin is key to how God prepares us and makes us new creations, worthy and acceptable in his sight. And so Joel continues:
Blow the trumpet in Zion; consecrate a fast; call a solemn assembly; gather the people. Consecrate the congregation; assemble the elders; gather the children, even nursing infants. Let the bridegroom leave his room, and the bride her chamber. Between the vestibule and the altar let the priests, the ministers of the LORD, weep and say, “Spare your people, O LORD, and make not your heritage a reproach, a byword among the nations. Why should they say among the peoples, ‘Where is their God?’”
Although repentance is a part of ordinary every-day Christian life, there is great benefit to us when we act as one body, for indeed we are one body – the Body of Christ! And so as we seek the grace of God’s Holy Spirit to cleanse us from our sins, we most appropriately and effectively do so together as the Church. This is why corporate worship, liturgy, and the sacramental life is so valuable – it binds us together, forging a multitude of voices into one. So together, on this first day of Lent, we do indeed consecrate a fast, call a solemn assembly, gather the congregation together, consecrating ourselves, elders, adults, young adults, children, unborn infant – everybody – so we can weep together over the depth and reality of our sins and cry out to God together as one, “Spare your people, O Lord!”
As we proceed with our worship this evening, the usual prayers of the people are replaced with two particular acts of repentance; the first is an outward act, and the second is an inward act.
How do we start with outward repentance?
It may seem strange at first – Joel’s proclamation begins by telling us to rend our hearts, and not our garments. He emphasizes that our sorry for sin needs to be inward and sincere, yet here we are preparing to put ashes on our heads. Is this hypocritical? Are we violating Jesus’ instructions to fast in private where nobody can see us? Well, if you’re looking forward to wearing these ashes as a badge of how pious you are, then yes, you are committing a sin of pride. These ashes, however, are meant to help us remember something quite different.
First of all, the ashes are a sign of humility. Throughout the Bible, we find people throwing dust on their heads when they hear bad news or are confronted with their own sinfulness. These ashes are in the same tradition as that: we make ourselves outwardly dirty to show ourselves and others that we are inwardly dirty, and need to be cleaned up!
Secondly, the ashes are a sign of mortality. God made Adam from the dust, and when we die, we return to the dust. By dusting ourselves in ashes, we remind ourselves of our earthly creation and our earthly death. And death is a terrible tragedy – it is an unnatural intrusion into God’s good creation, and when Christ returns, he will finally put an end to death forever!
Finally, the ashes are a sign of mourning and failure. Who knows what the ashes are made from? Palm branches from Palm Sunday! Most of a year ago, we carried palm branches singing Hosannas to our King. I also used them throughout the year thereafter to sprinkle you and this room with holy water on special occasions. But then yesterday I took those branches, chopped them up and burned them. Symbols of praise and thanksgiving to our God were transformed into symbols of sin and death. I tell you this not to show off how purist I am in keeping these traditions, but to illustrate a basic Christian truth: joy and sadness go hand in hand. As the very same palms of praise transform to the ashes of anguish, so too does Christ transform our mortal lives of sin into eternal life of heavenly bliss! God is a master of reconciliation and transformation. In about six weeks we’ll have new palm branches, and then on Easter we’ll be sprinkled with holy water again, symbolically washing the ashes off our heads that we put on today.
(Though please, wash your faces before you go to bed, or this stuff will get all over your pillows. I mean, go ahead and be hardcore if you want, but unless doing lots of laundry is part of your Lenten vow, I wouldn’t go that far!)
How do we proceed with inward repentance?
After we receive ashes on our heads, remembering that we are dust, and to dust we shall return, we then move into an intense liturgy of repentance called the Commination. As I put on the cover of the bulletins, a Commination is first a threat of punishment or vengeance, second a denunciation, or third a penitential office read on Ash Wednesday in which God’s anger and judgments are proclaimed against sinners. It has two parts to it: attrition and contrition. These may be words you’ve heard before but never quite figured out. They both refer to the idea of being sorry for something, but at different angles. Attrition is when you’re being worn down and forced to surrender. Contrition is when you genuinely give up yourself. In the Bible, God wants us to come to him with contrite hearts – he wants us to own up to our sins, recognize that we really are sinners in need of his grace. It is a contrite heart that is truly ready to receive him.
But this Commination liturgy uses both. First it uses attrition. I will read to you some curses upon sinners from the Bible, followed by a lengthy stream of Scripture verses that beat us down like a hammer until we have absolutely no pride left. Then, when that hammering of attrition is done, we let that pain resonate within ourselves and direct it back to God as contrition. After a moment of stunned silence, we will answer back to God, beginning with Psalm 51, moving through other prayers of repentance, and then finally come to the relief of God’s blessing. From there we can move on to offering ourselves to him as renewed creatures, and ascend to the celebration of Holy Communion with our God: the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, whose Name may be blessed evermore. Amen.