Ash Wednesday 2016
Let the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart be acceptable to you, O Lord, my rock and my redeemer. Amen.
Lent really snuck up on us this year, didn’t it? It seems like just yesterday we were taking down Christmas decorations. And then the next thing we know, we turn around and whoa, it’s suddenly Ash Wednesday.
As Christian mystic Henri Nouwen once wrote, “I am certainly not ready for Lent yet….Lent seems like an unwelcome guest. I could have used a few more weeks to get ready for this season of repentance, prayer, and preparation for the death and resurrection of Jesus.”
I agree with Henri Nouwen here. I could have used a few more weeks, too - I’m not “ready” for Ash Wednesday. I’m not ready to take a hard look at where I fall short. I’m not ready to wear ashes on my head and to remember that I will die someday and be dust. I’m not ready to take a close look at my unclean heart. I’m not ready to let go of the things in my life that I should let die. I’m not ready to go into the wilderness, even if it is with Jesus at my side.
But ready or not, Lent arrives. Just like life. Ready or not, life happens. Like Lent, life arrives like an unwelcome guest. We go about our days and regular routines and whoa - suddenly our lives have been interrupted our own personal Ash Wednesdays, when we become marked by death, grief, and pain. When we are suddenly not the person we were before, but aren’t yet the person we will be on the other side of the wilderness.
As Lent sneaks up on us, like a thief in the night, the rest of the world is ramping up to celebrate a holiday full of red hearts, flowers and chocolate gifts, and the celebration of romantic love.
Don’t get me wrong. Love is great. It’s is amazing and powerful and SHOULD be celebrated a little bit more in this world that seems to be LACKING so much love right now. God is love. God created us to love one another. And as Mr. Rogers, Presbyterian Minister and children’s television host, was known to sing on his show – “there are many ways to say ‘I love you’.” And it’s true. There are as many ways to show love to one another as there are people on this earth.
However, what Mr. Rogers did not add, is that too often there just as many ways to HURT one another. And by now, we have had thousands of generations of practice at it, and have thought of every way under the sun to cause one another pain.
Even this holiday of love coming up is not immune. According to legend, Valentine’s Day is the saint day – or death day – of Saint Valentine, who was thought to have performed weddings for soldiers who were forbidden to marry, and also ministering to persecuted Christians. The story goes that he wrote a letter before he was executed and signed it with “Your Valentine.” This was no cute note with candy decorated with hearts. This was a heart-wrenching letter written by a man marked for death.
And so weirdly, his holiday has become famous for being full of everything shiny, red, and heart shaped. Of course, we all know that love and other feelings don’t originate in our actual, real life hearts. But our hearts can feel like they are swelling with affection or love. Our hearts can ache with compassion and empathy, or with longing or loneliness. Our hearts can sting from being hurt. Our hearts can get bruised. Our hearts can even get broken.
What is the state of your heart right now, on this Ash Wednesday? If you were to take a moment and take stock of what kind of condition your heart is in at the moment, what would you find?
I’m guessing, if you are human and have lived on this planet for more than a few minutes, your heart is not pristine red, shiny, or intact like the decorations. No, I would imagine that our hearts are actually fairly dusty and dirty from disappointments and mistakes. Marked and scarred by wounds from the past. Broken and crushed by the suddenness of life happening to us.
We have a saying that we “put our hearts into” things that we care deeply about. Jesus in the Gospel of Matthew is specifically talking about physical treasures. Our homes and our cars and our things, the trappings of middle class suburban life in America, and the stuff that we buy to fill the empty void we sometimes feel in our hearts. But I think that anything, be it physical or not, that we put our whole hearts into becomes a treasure to us. Treasures that consume us.
Treasures like things that get damaged or become increasingly expensive to own. Jobs that don’t last. Relationships that don’t pan out, activities and plans that go nowhere, dreams of how life is “supposed to be” that become all-consuming to the exclusion of anything else
We love what we shouldn’t. We cling to what will consume us. We possess what eventually will possess us. We revere that which will in the end ruin us. We are careening down a path that will lead to our destruction, and most of us are speeding down that way on auto pilot.
Just the other day, I was driving home from church, on auto pilot, when I was startled by seeing break lights up ahead. Sure enough, the road I had driving on a thousand times was blocked off, and I suddenly had to take stock of where I was, and figure out how to get back on the right road to make it home.
Ash Wednesday, the start of Lent, is kind of like that. Ready or not, it’s time to take note of the brake lights and orange cones, so that we can take stock of our dusty, sore hearts. And what we often find what we don’t want to find. We find that our sinful and broken human states, have scarred our hearts. We find that, like St. Valentine, we are marked by death. But God uses a mark of death in order to claim us for new life.
One meaning of Lent is “to lengthen,” like the daylight hours in the coming spring, that hopefully will arrive someday soon. The purpose of Lent is to makes US “long” for this new life –We long for right spirits that love what will not leave us dusty or damaged. We long to stop causing and receiving heartbreak. We long to be out of the darkness and we long for the return of the light. We long for hearts that are clean so that we can love as God has called us to love. We long to be able to store up treasures not of this world but treasures worthy of heaven, love and justice and mercy and forgiveness.
God does not leave us in our dusty, heartsick state. God does not abandon us to the wilderness of our own misguided treasures. God does not cast our dirty hearts aside and throw us away to be discarded. God reaches out to us, arms out-stretched, ready to give our hearts a good scrubbing. Ready or not, Lent then is the detour God leads us on through that cleaning process.
And so we wear the sign of the cross in ashes on the outside to remind ourselves of the work that God is enacting on the INSIDE Of us. The confessing our sins. The embracing of our brokenness. The naming of our grief and disappointments. And this the slow and painful process of the transforming of our dusty and broken hearts into clean ones, better able to love the other dusty and dirty hearts out there in our lives and in the rest of the world.
That transformation probably takes more than forty days. But forty days is a good start.
It helps us to remember that at the end of these long, dark forty days, or however long our particular transformation may take, at the end of this journey there is hope -
Forgiveness is waiting.
Hearts are washed clean.
Light is growing stronger.
Love shines through darkness.
Easter is coming.
Ready or not, LIFE IS emerging from death. Amen.