And so now the journey begins …again.
Today the Christian Church begins its season of Lent, which both liturgically and spiritually speaking is our shared journey to the cross. In one sense, what this means is that on the Christian calendar we set aside the 40 days (plus Sundays) prior to Easter to focus our worship and study on matters relating to Jesus’ “passion and victory;” that is, his willingness to be sacrificed upon the cross for the sake of our salvation, yours and mine, before God. As I am fond of saying, as Christians it is essential for us, before coming to Easter’s Day of Resurrection, to encounter Good Friday; and that is where this Lenten journey takes us.
However, this “journey” is more than our merely moving liturgically from Ash Wednesday to Easter. Lent is also time, or at least it ought to be, for each of us to reflect on our own spiritual journeys: to consider the depth of our relationship with God in the context of our walk with Jesus; indeed to give thought and prayer as to what it means for you and me to call ourselves disciples of Christ in the context of life as we actually live it. So as a journey, then, Lent provides an opportunity for us to get ourselves on course (or perhaps more accurately, back on course) spiritually speaking!
And it starts with Ash Wednesday.
Traditionally, Ash Wednesday has always been one of the more solemn observances of the Christian year. It’s observed in differing ways in our churches, from the imposition of ashes to prayer vigils and times of silence or fasting; but whatever the ritual, this day is considered to be a time for each Christian to recognize and acknowledge the sin that both separates us from God and which tears us apart from one another. Ash Wednesday is meant to be a day of confession: a time to admit our “secret sins” before God and to ask God’s forgiveness; it’s about repentance, taking our first step in turning away, 180 degrees, from the sin that destroys us, the sin that leads to death. The very name of this day – Ash Wednesday – serves to remind us that sin and death are intertwined (after all, life is “ashes to ashes, dust to dust”), and none of us are invincible but quite vulnerable to both.
If all of this seems to be inordinately somber, you’re right.
But there is purpose in all the solemnity! And we hear it in our reading today from the prophet Joel: that the day of the Lord, “a day of darkness and gloom, a day of clouds and thick darkness,” is coming. So, says Joel, “call a solemn assembly; gather the people.” There is a time and place for rejoicing and celebration, but that time is not today; today is for “fasting, with weeping and mourning,” it is for us to “return to the LORD, [our] God,” because (and here’s the key), “he is gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love.” To put it another way, it’s the heart that is both confessing and repentant that comes to know the forgiveness and love of God, so let us return to God now!
Actually, I’ve always kind of likened this to the old-time farming practice of “burning off the fields.” This is not something that you see today as often as you used to, but back in the day it was the custom each springtime for the farmer to literally burn off his fields in order to make room for new crops to grow. After the fall harvest, you see, there would be all the residue of what had grown there before: matted roots, broken stalks and all manner of other debris. It’d be left there through the winter to protect the fields from wind and water erosion, but come spring, it would all have to be removed for planting to take place; and so often the farmer would opt to set the fields on fire and burn it all away!
I remember when I was very young seeing (and smelling) pillars of black smoke emanating from the farmland around northern Maine; and afterward, along all the roads up there you’d see acres of all these charred pastures. But the thing was, this wasn’t a sign of destruction; rather it served as a symbol of renewal, of new life and of the planting that was soon to take place. Even the ashes created in the burning had their place in the natural order of things; giving testimony to the truth that old things (and old ways) often have to die in order to make room for the new to grow.
It’s a good analogy for what we do on this Ash Wednesday; and for what this Lenten journey is all about. It is time, you see, for each one of us as people of faith to be burning off our own fields; time for us to be rid of the debris that clutters up the soil of our Christian living; clearing out old and outmoded attitudes to make room for the new spiritual growth that needs to take root within our lives. How will anything grow unless our field is ready for planting? How do we become the people God has purposed us to be unless we are open to his care and nurture? And how do we truly receive the gift of life that comes in this journey to the cross of Christ unless our hearts are opened to receive it?
Truth be told, most of us, where the fields of our own lives are concerned, are all too comfortable just accepting all the debris that exists there. We cling to old habits and false comfort, even when such things suffocate us or pull us away from a real and meaningful life; we bear the burdens of old fears and doubts; we carry the sins that keep us from moving forward; all of this to the point where the true life we need and desire gets choked out before it can even come to fruition! This is why the act of confession and assurance, of prayer and personal reflection is so very important in our Christian discipline, and why in these days of Lent we are called to draw near to God both in solitude and in community; that we might truly open ourselves to God’s spirit, perhaps to discover what it is that’s holding us back from growing in faith and in love; and then, in burning off that rubble, creating that place in our lives for God’s graceful love to flourish.
In a moment, we’ll have the opportunity to receive a gift; that of ashes rubbed on the forehead or wrist. It’s the remnant of burnt Palm leaves from last year’s Palm Sunday processional; a graphic reminder to us just as that Palm Sunday does lead inevitably to Good Friday, sin does lead to death. But it there’s more to it that that; yes, it symbolizes the sins that are ours and which we confess, but it also represents the forgiveness we received, the price that was paid for that forgiveness; and above all, our deep desire to accept that forgiveness as a means to new growth through God’s gracious an merciful love and his unending caring. These ashes are symbols of… LIFE.
Thanks be to God for the life that only he can give us.
AMEN and AMEN!
c. 2015 Rev. Michael W. Lowry