A Homily for Ash Wednesday:
February 22, 2012
The season of Lent is a pilgrimage.
For those who are familiar and comfortable and at home in our faith, Lent is the season where we enter unknown territory and become as foreigners. Lent is the friend who shows up on your doorstep and pulls you out of the house for a road trip when you’d rather just stay inside where it’s cozy. Lent interrupts your comfort and rattles your security. Perhaps it is the difficulty of a fast, perhaps it is the somber tone of the music, perhaps it is the feel of ashes on your forehead—but something about Lent is bound to invade your comfort.
Then again, for those of us who are already feeling out of place in the faith, Lent greets us like a fellow traveler, and says, “I’ve got a map if you’ve got some walking boots,” and suddenly we find ourselves with companionship on what we mistook for a lonely road. Perhaps it is the dusty colors, perhaps it is the stories about disciples who betray and misunderstand and mess-up, perhaps it is all the talk of death and suffering and confession—but something about Lent is bound to offer friendship to your brokenness.
This Scripture passage from Joel chapter 2 is a classic Ash Wednesday text, and I think that is because it speaks of a journey of repentance, a voyage of returning to God. This isn’t a one-time mental decision; it is a movement back towards. Joel 2 is a passage full of action words for the repentant.
But I find myself riveted to the seeming ambiguity of God’s activity. I hear an iffy-ness in the phrase: “Who knows? He may turn and relent. Who knows?” Is that really good motivation to repent—maybe, perhaps, possibly God will be merciful? Is this a worthy image of God with which to pack my bags for the journey home?
Perhaps it is. Just the image we need. “Who knows? He may turn and relent. Who knows?”
Of course, we do know. As people who confess the truth of Resurrection, we know the end of the story. We know all about mercy and forgiveness and redemption and salvation. We know God will respond to our confession. We know—at least conceptually—how endless grace really is.
But during Lent we suspend that knowledge—not entirely, but partially. We hold forgiveness at arm’s length because the rest of the year forgiveness comes so readily, we might be tempted to think we don’t really need it. We might forget we would be lost without it. We might forget we are broken and needy and we might forget that healing and help came to us at great cost. We might forget to start the journey at all, thinking we’re already where we need to be.
Lent is an attempt to live in and with the phrase, “Who Knows?” Lent is like living in the land of uncertainty all over again, sojourning through the wilderness with the hope of a Promise Land tucked in our hearts. Like the Israelites, we cannot see past the desert sands to the home that awaits us, but we faithfully eat our manna by day and dream of milk and honey by night. Lent is like journeying side-by-side with Jesus down the dusty road to Golgotha with increasing dread in our hearts, wishing to avoid death, but knowing we must face it. Like the disciples, we do not yet understand what Jesus meant when he said the Son of Man would rise again, but despite our lack of understanding and our uncertain hope, we refuse to leave our Lord.
In this day and time, we are so accustomed to the language of grace and forgiveness, Joy and Jesus, redemption and resurrection, that we could easily forget death and repentance came first, and how for that long and terrible span of three days, we did not know what would become of Jesus and his message about the coming Kingdom. For three long days, he waited in a grave and we waited in angst. We had to choose whether to huddle together in the room with the disciples, holding onto to one another in shaky faith and uncomfortable anticipation, or whether we would leave the faith altogether, bereft of hope.
To observe Lent it to huddle together, the uncertainty of the future helping us to take an honest look at our own lives. We face the reality of our own imminent death. We make confessions and take steps of repentance, hoping hoping that God will turn and relent and leave behind a blessing.
To take the mark of the ashes on our forehead is to remember with vividness our own smallness, our temporality, our limits, and rather than fight to deny them, we accept them without fear. We stop turning a blind eye to our lives, and we view our own selves with honesty and openness—neither covering our sins with arrogant justifications nor covering our gifts with misplaced modesty. We stop, for just a moment, being afraid of who we are, and we suspend our fear of death. We look death right in the face, knowing it is time to let go of our sick parts, knowing that the brave acceptance of our mortality helps us see the beauty of living, knowing that the road to resurrection is marked with hardship and courage, knowing that an empty tomb only comes after the prayer of surrender in the Garden.
May we, this Lenten season, have the courage to look honestly at ourselves and have the hope to ask forgiveness. May we embark on a journey, not knowing what hardships will befall us or what graces will find us. May we remember our Creator, who created us from dust, who created all things good, who forgives us when we mar the goodness, and who will welcome us home when we return to the ground. Amen.