Ash Wednesday: Learning to Love Lent

[Preached at All Saints Church, Pasadena, CA in English and Spanish
Isaiah 58: 1-12
Matthew 6:1-6, 16-21]

ImageMy brothers and sisters in Christ, I invite you to this holy season with Lent with this awkward confession: I have never really liked Lent. I know that many Christians consider this the holiest of seasons of the Church year, and many of you find it a deeply moving and profound experience. At the same time, it’s important to acknowledge also that some of us enter it with some resistance.

I should hasten to add that I do not resist an examination of conscience, or a penitent attitude, or my dependency on God’s forgiveness and neverending grace. On the contrary, in my daily Franciscan prayer life, I examine my conscience every day, and I seek reconciliation with God and others, on the personal and societal level, as an ongoing spiritual practice. And this religious practice of marking our foreheads with ashes on Ash Wednesday is also very Franciscan. Francis used a Tau cross (a T-shaped cross) as a symbol of penitence. The Tau cross originates from Ezekiel chapter 9, verse 4: “Go through Jerusalem and put a TAU on the foreheads of those who grieve and lament over all the detestable things that are done in it.” So a Franciscan should love Lent, right?

My resistance to Lent in the past has come from three sources. First, I objected to the sad music and the lack of Alleluias (see, I just sneaked an Alleluia in). I have often felt, “Why do we have to manufacture sadness in our church life? Isn’t there enough suffering in the world?”

Second, I objected to the compulsory nature of a penitential season. Yes, it is our job as Christians to lament our sins and to seek the forgiveness of God and others. But isn’t this an ongoing effort? And don’t we have to enter into that spiritual practice and frame of mind when the Holy Spirit and our consciences prompt us?

And finally, I have had a hard time focusing on the physical suffering of Jesus on the cross. For those of us who are attuned to the suffering of others, it can be difficult to contemplate prayerfully the torture and killing of anyone–especially the Divine Man, Jesus Christ.

Nevertheless, I have come to appreciate somewhat the gift of Lent. I have come to expect surprises and insights—all good ones—when I immerse myself in Lent. Like our Muslim and Jewish brothers and sisters, we prescribe a time of prayer and fasting to turn our attention back to God, to repair breaches in our lives, and to make ourselves abundantly aware of God’s everlasting mercy towards us.

And I have come to appreciate that we do this intentionally as a community, not alone. The work of repentance can always go on in the individual human heart, but a communal effort has another sense to it: we gain a sense of union in purpose by doing it together. Lent is an opportunity to hold each other accountable in this season of reconciliation, to encourage one another and to be models to one another. It’s a time to commit to a shared struggle and a shared spiritual path.

As we enter this season in such a public, communal way, it’s important to note somewhat ironically the warnings in our readings today about false piety. In the passage from Isaiah, God lectures us first to avoid following religious rules to impress others. God wishes us to seek and to offer real healing and reconciliation in our society and our personal lives.

I find it interesting that whenever people asked Mother Theresa, winner of the Nobel Peace Prize, about how we could bring about peace in world conflicts, she always replied that peace begins at home. At the breakfast table. In the schoolyard. At work. At church. Peace and reconciliation begin with forgiving one another, nurturing one another, loving one another. As Isaiah writes, it begins when we stop pointing the finger at one another, when we stop speaking evil. How well Isaiah knew the dangers of gossip and dishonesty in our personal encounters.

In the Gospel passage today, Jesus reminds us that the real work of penitence and reconciliation is quiet. It is behind the scenes, often deep within us. And it is slow. It takes time. There are likely to be some failures and awkward moments before there is success. And when there is success, there will be no trumpets, no fanfare, no applause. There is no Academy Award or Oscar for Best Act of Reconciliation. It simply doesn’t work like that. In  Rufus Wainwright’s version of the song, “Hallelujah,” he writes, “Love is not a victory march.”

Reconciliation is not a victory march either. It is sometimes a quiet, sleepy stumble through the dark in the middle of the night. We feel our way through it, hoping not to bump into a painful corner as we reach for the light switch.

Or it can feel like a slog through the mud. In some of the areas of our life where we seek peace, it may seem like we are making no progress. We are sinking down into the mud, our feet are getting stuck, and the same old conflicts resurface.

Lent is an opportunity to sink into the mud and slow down. To intentionally take our time, and to take stock of our lives. It is all right to slog through the mud. It is all right because that muck we find ourselves in comes from the refreshing rain of God. God sends us grace that is like a persistent spring rain. As the poetic Isaiah writes, “You will be like a well watered garden, like a spring of water, whose waters never fail.”

This rain from God penetrates the dry, hard places in our hearts. It oozes into the broken, cracked incidents of our lives. Like this storm we had this past weekend, it will create mud, and we will see muddy pools where we may not have seen them before. It can feel messy. It can stir up the earthworms. Ultimately, however, this mud is good, because it allows new life to flourish. Those earthworms that crawl in the mud may seem unpleasant, but the truth is, they till the earth and fertilize it with their excrement. And that is how new life grows: from worm excrement.

This may seem profane, but the Christian message is about the marriage of the sacred and the profane in the death of Jesus on the cross. New life emerges from radical acts of love, such as Christ’s sacrifice on the cross for us. As we contemplate the cross so intently this Lenten season, it’s important to remember that Jesus accepted death as a sign of love and humility and ultimately liberation for all of us.

This is the spiritual work to which we are invited in Lent: to look deep into the wellsprings of our being for the love and humility that signals Christ’s presence within us. To set aside our pride, our need to be right, to succeed, to win. In some cases, if we have been mistreated by others, reconciliation begins when we find the courage to confront those who have hurt us so that we can rebuild the walls of our ruined selves.

This work happens far beneath the surface in our lives, where Christ dwells in us. We need to take this time in Lent to examine the deepest recesses of our hearts, and to allow God’s grace to seep into us and renew us.

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