Sermon #172 St. James the Less #79 2/26/20
“Yet even now, says the Lord, return to me with all your heart, with fasting, with weeping, and with mourning; rend your hearts and not your clothing.” (Joel 2:12-13).
Today on Ash Wednesday we begin our long, 40-day journey through the season of Lent. As the opening prayer of our service said, it is a time marked by the “lamenting [of] our sins and acknowledging our wretchedness.” The Prayer Book has a way of even making “wretchedness” sound poetic.
Lent originated in the very earliest days of the Church as a time of preparation for Easter, when the faithful rededicated themselves and when converts were instructed in the faith and prepared for baptism. This time of preparation was based on Jesus’ forty days in the wilderness which was marked with temptation as well as his own preparation for ministry. By observing a holy Lent, we join Jesus in the wilderness.
We are called to fast from those things that distract us from God and to fill that void with spiritual practices in order to draw closer to our Savior. As the prophet Joel said so vividly, we are called to return, to come back to the Creator and Sustainer of us all. And we do so by “rending our hearts and not our clothing.”
You may remember the chief priest rending his clothes when he thought Jesus was speaking blasphemy while on trial in Jerusalem.
But when it comes to Lent, the prophet Joel tells us that physical actions are not enough. We could shave our head, put on sackcloth, and beat our breast for the next forty days, but the call of Lent is much deeper than the physical, in many ways it’s about the caring of our soul and our relation to God.
This “soul care” is something we all need. Just like going on a daily walk or working out at the gym, Lent is a time to pay close attention to the health of our innermost depths. It is a time to strengthen our connection with God.
To do so we have to take a hard look in the mirror. Like a physician telling their patient that if they truly want good health, they will need to improve their diet, dedicate more time to exercise, and get plenty of sleep. Lent is the time to hear the Great Physician’s call to put down the things that have driven us far from him and to…return.
And though physical actions are not the end goal of Lent, they are a means to the goal of spiritual health. Fasting once a week, waking up early to pray, or volunteering on your off day are physical ways that teach the soul what it means to submit ourselves to something, or better yet, Someone who is bigger than us.
On this day we use the physical action of placing ashes on our forehead to symbolize a deeper spiritual meaning. In the Bible, a mark on the forehead was a symbol of a person’s ownership; and so, being marked with a cross symbolizes that a person belongs to God. And we do this as an imitation of the spiritual mark that is put on us initially at baptism when we are “marked as Christ’s own forever.”
The physical and the spiritual go hand in hand in this way.
When the priest places the ashes and says, “Remember that you are dust and to dust you shall return,” we are reminded of our frailty and mortality. That one day we will die just like all those who have gone before us.
Amazingly, this very basic, physical action can speak to the depth of our soul.
Lent is a reality check in many ways, it is a call to look in the mirror and realize we are sinful and broken; that we are not the Creator, but we are in fact the creation.
Though we live in a culture that always seeks the individual’s happiness and fulfillment, Lent calls us to “sanctify a fast and call a solemn assembly” as the prophet says; to be reminded of our humanity and in so doing we will recognize our dependence on God alone.
We are called to do the opposite of what the culture tells us to do.
Instead of running after what we desire, we should seek after those things that we know God desires.
Instead of trying to act happy all the time, and putting that on our social media account, we should be okay with the ordinary routines of our life that aren’t flashy or exciting.
Instead of seeking after the fountain of youth, we are reminded that all of us will return to the dust.
Though we may not like Ash Wednesday and what it stands for, we desperately need it. We need to be reoriented back to the values of God’s kingdom. We need to be reminded that we are not lord of our own lives and that without God we can do nothing.
And so, for the next forty days, we need to do some soul care. We need to look inside ourselves and find the places that need healing, we need to name the unhealthy parts of our lives and to seek forgiveness.
And then we must think about our relations with others. This soul care should not be focused on “me” the individual person, but rather on our relation to God and to others.
As you can imagine, this caring for the soul project might be painful as we learn more about ourselves and how we relate to our Heavenly Father. But for a plant to be healthy it must be pruned from time to time. The unhealthy, diseased, or even dead branches must be cut off for the sake of the plant.
The next forty days may be tough, we may even suffer, but we’ll be in good company for it is the sign of the One who suffered and died for us that we put on our forehead this day.
And, if in fact, being marked on the forehead was a sign of ownership in ancient times, then may we proudly display the cross on our own forehead remembering that we are Jesus’ own possession, and to Jesus we shall return.