Watching for Ash Wednesday, February 10, 2016
Ash Wednesday takes us into territory that we, as Americans, don’t travel much. It is a season of repentance. We have a hard time acknowledging our sins, much less feeling bad about it. Nor do we like to think about our mortality and the frailty of life. But there is no wisdom without these.
Our instinctive national answer to the tragedy in the Middle East is to blame and send more troops, not to ask how we ended up here and whether there is another path we should take. We do not like to consider whether there are stains on our hands.
There is something to be said for the forward view of American culture. We are a people who do not feel bound by the past. Its blessing is our inventiveness. Its curse is that we do not learn well from the past.
We do not have time for navel-gazing; there are things to do. We do not believe in abstinence; the economy depends upon impulse purchases. Even Santa, after all, we now know, ditches his sleigh for the much more pleasurable experiences of delivering present in his bright red Mercedes.
Ash Wednesday tells us to be still. To remember we are mortal. To consider the realm of the spirit. To let go of some generally simple pleasures (that we imagine we cannot live without) and turn our attention to those who are in need of life’s most basic necessities like food and shelter. Or friendship. Or kindness. Or a listening ear.
So Wednesday we will hear the traditional texts from Joel calling us to return to the LORD, and the David’s psalm crying out to God after being confronted with the abuse of his royal power to take Bathsheba and rob Uriah of his life. We will hear Paul urge us to be reconciled with God. And we will hear Jesus talk about the difference between acts of public piety and a life that embodies the mercy of God.
Forty days is much to long to feel sad about our sins. But both the Greek and Hebrew words translated as repentance mean changing our direction, not feeling guilty.
We need occasionally to stop, and look, and turn away from the well-worn path into that other path that is true life.
We call it Lent.
It takes us to Easter.
The Prayer for Ash Wednesday
Almighty God, Holy and Immortal,
who knows the secrets of every heart
and brings all things to the light of your grace.
Root us ever in your promised mercy
that, freed from every sin and shame,
we may walk the paths of your truth and love.
The Texts for Ash Wednesday
First Reading: Joel 2:1-2, 12-17
“Blow the trumpet in Zion; sanctify a fast; call a solemn assembly; gather the people.” – Facing a terrible plague of locusts, the prophet calls for the people to turn to God, marking themselves with dust and ashes and rent hearts that God may see their desperate plight and come to their aid.
Psalmody: Psalm 103:8-14
“He has not dealt with us according to our sins, nor rewarded us according to our wickedness.” – In our parish, we use the appointed Psalm 51 (the famous cry of repentance by David after he has been confronted by the prophet Nathan over the murder of Uriah and the taking of Bathsheba ) in the confession at the beginning of our liturgy. When we come to the time for the psalm we hear the poet speak of the tender love and faithfulness of God who has “removed our sins from us” “as far as the east is from the west.”
Second Reading: 2 Corinthians 5:20b-6:1 (Appointed: 5:20b-6:10)
“We entreat you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God.” – Paul calls his troubled congregation to live within the reconciling work of God in Christ.
Gospel Matthew 6:1-6, 16-21
“Beware of practicing your piety before others in order to be seen by them; for then you have no reward from your Father in heaven.” – Jesus declares at the beginning of the Sermon on the Mount that, in order to enter into God’s dawning reign, our righteousness must exceed that of the scribes and Pharisees. Now, having spoken about the meaning of the commandments (in contrast to the way they are taught by the scribes) Jesus turns to the acts of piety for which the Pharisees were known. Our prayer, fasting and charity must be done not for public acclaim but to please God.