If you like a good guilt trip, pack your emotional baggage because Ash Wednesday is for you. If you like the feeling of being found out for the sinful things you’ve done, today is your day. If you find that the attention you get for doing bad things fills a need within you, then I’ve got some filthy ashes over there with your name on it. If Ash Wednesday and Lent were only about the baggage we carry of not all our shortcomings, that we’re perpetual slaves to sin, we could simply take our ashes to go, and be done with it. But there’s much more to this day than indulging a gnawing sense of guilt.
There are many things for us to admit our guilt.
The whole world grieves the horrific deaths of innocents at the hands of vicious militants. We cringe at beheadings, and immolations we see in the news cycles. Meanwhile, women have been the victims of this and a host of other unspeakably brutal acts for generations, but no one seems to want to notice their cries for justice. It’s only when a male is treated in such a manner that it gets media attention and the world cries foul. According to a statement by Amnesty International, “Every year a vast number of women and young girls are mutilated, battered to death, burned alive, raped, trafficked for domestic or sexual purposes, primarily because they are female.” This is just one instance where we ought to adorn ourselves with the ashes of guilt.
In our lectionary reading from Joel, we tremble at the approach of a great and powerful army; the likes of which have never been from of old, nor will be again after them in ages to come. How many armies have used the time-tested approach of shock-and-awe to vanquish enemies, or the blitzkrieg to disorganize and confuse in order to conquer lands. All may be fair in love and war, but that doesn’t excuse our willful ignorance of the lasting effects of traumatic stress of war amongst our neighbors.
In our reading from Paul’s letter to the Corinthians we hear of the injustices and cruelty inflicted upon human beings by other human beings who devalue life. Paul describes what it’s been like to change the way people think and act as followers of Jesus Christ. He frames the experience of discipleship in terms of great endurance in afflictions, hardships, calamities, beatings, imprisonments, riots, labors, sleepless nights, and hunger. The response of the people he was trying to reach came in the form of treating Paul and his companions as impostors; as unknown, and dying. They were punished, sorrowful, poor, and having nothing; and yet they moved deliberately forward, toward something greater. That’s important: they moved deliberately forward, toward something greater.
The people Paul ministered to are guilty of gross mistreatment of Paul and his companions. We are guilty by extension whenever we ignore the pleas of fellow disciples for justice in similar situations.
We often don’t see our own failures as well as we see the failures of others. We’re not able to see the ash marks on our own foreheads. We need others to point them out to us. There are plenty of things we ought to be ashamed of, and smudge our foreheads with the guilty dirt, but what good does that really do for us? It does plenty of good for the egos of those who enjoy looking for the faults in others. But how does it help us be better followers of Jesus Christ?
Ash Wednesday is about recognizing our shortcomings, admitting our sins, and confronting those parts of ourselves that ordinarily we would rather keep hidden from the judgmental gaze of others or our own guilt trips. Today we have the dirty parts of us pointed out for the purpose of doing something about them. That is what Lent is all about.
It isn’t really enough to walk about with a mark on our foreheads so that everyone can see that we’re Christians observing an annual day of atonement. The reality is that, however well I draw a cross on your forehead with these ashes, it will be washed off before tomorrow; and then what of it? This day is meant for bringing our shortcomings and failings before ourselves so that we can do something about them, and move to a deeper relationship with Jesus Christ.
Jesus warns us today in the Gospel about practicing our piety in order that others will see it. Christianity is about being in community with one another; to see and be seen; to know and be known by others. You cannot be a Christian in isolation. But on this day, you are expected to do the hard work of individual introspection. Bravely hold up before your very own eyes, those things that hinder your full participation in the Body of Christ; and then be willing to undertake an honest process to correct those failings. God already knows about your sins and failures. God was there the times you turned a blind eye to the needs of others, or chose a snarky statement over hospitality. Lent is for us to be honest with ourselves, and become better disciples in the process.
In the Gospel, Jesus gives us a path to move forward; to grow into full and complete discipleship. If you desire righteousness, follow this pattern. If you seek to know Jesus, follow this pattern. If you want to do something about the character flaws that hold you back from all the blessings and grace that God desires for you, follow this pattern.
Jesus says give. Just give. Give of your alms. Give of your time. Give up the guilt over the things you didn’t get right last time. Give up letting other people’s judgements of you control your life. Give up giving up on yourself. Take a deep breath and try again.
Jesus says pray. Pray in song when you’re driving to work and no one else can hear you. Pray like my favourite Tevya from “Fiddler on the Roof” who talks to God like he’s talking to a person standing next to him. “Dear God,” he says. “Was that necessary? Really, sometimes I think when things are too quiet up there you say to yourself, ‘let’s see what kind of mischief can I play on my friend Tevya.’” Pray honestly and often. God will hear you.
Jesus says fast. Abstain. Do not even allow those things that cause your faith to stumble to enter the domain of you. Do you drink too much? How much power do the couch and TV remote have over you? Can you go 40-days without following the presidential candidates on Facebook and Twitter? There is so much surrounding us to lure us away from the life and peace and serenity that our faith offers. Things that are quantifiable will always try to diminish the value of things not quantifiable. The abundance of faith cannot be measured on a ticker tape. Abstain from those things.
Jesus says, above all this, be transformed by all of this. Use this sacred time of Lent to create new patterns for yourself that are lasting and more life-giving that the ones before. I promise you, if you are diligent in this sacred time, you will enjoy benefits you couldn’t even imagine.
If you choose to come forward to receive the imposition of ashes, try to think of them as all the detritus that’s been keeping you from fully embracing the best life in Christ. Think of this filthy ash as all the guilt you’ve accepted, heaped upon you by yourself and others, for all your failures. Think of this gray powder as the dust you tap off your sandals as you walk away from the kind of living that’s not much of a life. Then go home, and wash it off, and start a new life, fresh and clean in the love of your Saviour.
Let us begin Lent this day as a journey without the baggage of guilt. Start anew to bring peace and justice to the world. Take the time to make a difference in the life of a stranger. Seek and serve Christ in all people. And when you fall short of the expectations of the kingdom of heaven – because you will – because nobody’s perfect – wash the ashes off, take a breath, and try again.
Let us pray the words of the Psalmist for a holy Lent: Bless the LORD, O my soul, and forget not all God’s benefits. God forgives all your sins and heals all your infirmities. God redeems your life from the grave and crowns you with mercy and loving-kindness. God satisfies you with good things, and [you will be] renewed like an eagle.