This was my Ash Wednesday Meditation for February 25, 2004, at Tompkins Corners UMC. The Scriptures are Joel 2: 1 – 2, 12 – 17; 2 Corinthians 5: 20 – 6: 10; and Matthew 6: 1 – 6, 16 – 21
A few years back I was on my way to work in New York City. Then that particular chore in life required walking from Grand Central Station to Union Square. And on this particular day, seemingly no different from the others, I could not help but notice that people walking back towards Grand Central Station all had a smudge on their foreheads.
It was not just one or two people who were marked this way but dozens of people. There was no commotion, no shouting and these people did not seem to be any different from the others around them. Obviously, I could not help but think how strange this appeared to be. But then it occurred to me. It was Ash Wednesday and I was approaching the Catholic Church on Park Avenue just as the morning mass was ending.
Now, both figuratively and theologically, I knew then what Ash Wednesday was. But my knowledge of the day was not like it is today. With the requirements of getting to work weighing more heavily on my mind, the significance of this day and of this time on the Christian calendar did not register. In fact, while growing up, there was little or no emphasis on this date or the time of the calendar.
Oh, I know about giving something up and one cannot, when growing up in the South or the Midwest, not know the meaning of Mardi Gras or Shrove Tuesday. Yesterday was, depending on your language, either "Fat" Tuesday (otherwise known as Mardi Gras) or Shrove Tuesday. In traditional times, the rules for fasting and abstinence were rather strict and so on the last day before Lent, you used up all your food. So that you could begin fasting, you ate meat and anything like pancakes that would use up the eggs, butter and dairy products, and fat that was in your larder, hence the tradition of pancakes on Shrove Tuesday. This was also a day for rowdy sports and mischief; hence the celebrations for Mardi Gras, especially in New Orleans.
But Lent is much more than a party before or giving up of something during Lent. Far too many people emphasize the partying and far too many people give something up during the forty days, only to take it back when Easter has come and passed. That is not what this time is about.
The word Lent comes from the Anglo-Saxon word lencten or "spring". Historically, the forty days before Easter are a period of preparation for Easter. It was a time of fasting. It was also in the ancient churches a time to baptize the newly convert. It was a time of penance.
But it was not meant to be a temporary change. It was meant to be a change of the heart, an inward change, not merely something on the outside for others to see. And when I began to see that Lent was more about what happen to people inside rather that what they did on the days before Lent began, my view of this day has changed. That is why I am here today.
That is why we are here today. God, through Joel, calls to us to return "with all our heart, with fasting, with weeping, and with mourning." But to do so we must change our hearts. "Rend your hearts, not your clothes" is what God said to the Israelites. Change your ways is what God requires.
Jesus was saying the same thing. He was especially disdainful of those who would stand on the corner and pray so that others could see them doing so. They were not praying to God but rather performing for the others. Avoid the public display of penance and devotion. Your penance must be for yourself, not for others. What you do during this time must be for yourself and done to restore your relationship with God, not for public attention or adulation.
So why are you here today? I hope that you have come because you seek a change in your life; I hope that you have come this day because you know you need to repent. Remember that as Jesus died on the cross that Good Friday one of the two thieves that were crucified with him mocked him and ridiculed him. But the other thief understood that he was there because he had done wrong and that Jesus had not.
And in the agony of his death, the second thief asked Jesus to forgive him. And Jesus did. In the Old Testament reading for today, we hear God saying that there is no time when you cannot change, there is no time when God will not be there if you so desire.
In his letters to the Corinthians, Paul asked them to open their hearts, minds, and ears to God and hear his cry to us. Today, we are in the same position as the Corinthians of hearing God’s call for reconciliation. Paul pointed out that many of the Corinthians had, in fact, already acknowledged salvation through Christ but that they had become stuck because they had not changed their lives.
Paul pointed out that God was ready to listen to the cries of the Corinthians and He is ready to hear our cries. God is willing to help the Corinthians and, by extension, ourselves. But we must first make the change.
We are here today because God is calling us and we have heard Him calling. We are here today because we have said to God that we are willing to confess our sins and not only give up the old life for forty days but to do so for the days beyond that.
The smudge of ashes that we receive today is not a badge of honor but a reminder. They remind us of our own mortality; they remind us of our sins. But they also remind us that we have come seeking to change our lives and begin anew. The ashes are also a sign that we have begun preparing for Easter and the Resurrection of Christ. They are a sign that we are a truly reconciled people who have sought to come back to God.
Only a cynic or someone who does not know what is to come would now ask, "why are you here?" They ask because their faith is weak or non-existent. And those of us here today would answer, "I am here because I truly desire to repent and be reconciled with God."
We know the answer to the question, a question that will be asked many times in the course of our journey in faith. And in forty days we will hear the angel ask Mary that very same question. We are here because we seek the Risen Savior, who died for our sins and to set us free.