Today we observe one of the most solemn days of the church year: Ash Wednesday. On this day we remember our mortality and begin 40 days of Lent, during which we prepare ourselves for Christ’s death and resurrection.
Last week at Children’s worship, Jane Lynch spoke to the kids about how Lent is a time to prepare for Christ’s death and resurrection. When one little boy got back to his mother, he tugged at her anxiously and said, “They killed Baby Jesus!” Because this was new information to this almost-three year old, he was able to experience the deep shock and pain of Christ’s death. Just wait until he hears that Christ comes to life again! He’s going to be blown away.
As adult believers, it is difficult to keep the sorrow over Christ’s death and the joy over the resurrection fresh. We have heard the story over and over again, but the meaning of the story begins to recede as time passes. We go about our days getting more and more caught up in the details: what to make for dinner, what needs to be crossed off our to-do lists, where the kids need to be when. We don’t have a lot of time to think about theological issues.
Ash Wednesday pulls the rug out from under us. As we have ashes imposed on our foreheads, as we hear the words, ‘From dust you came and to dust you shall return,” we remember that no matter how many errands we run, how many meals we cook, how many days we go into the office, all that will stop one day, and we will die.
Suddenly Christ’s death and resurrection take on a great deal of significance. For, through this miraculous event, our deaths are no longer meaningless and terrifying. Because of Christ’s resurrection, we know we have a hope and a future.
So, now that we have been stopped short from our crazy lives, how can we live the next 40 days in such a way that will ready us to hear the good news of God’s salvation?
Our Gospel passage today, guides us, through telling us what Jesus does not want. What Jesus does not want is for us to beat our chests in public, shouting “woe is me!” so that everyone knows how fabulously penitent we are this Lent.
Like most of our faith, Lent is about relationship.
When we sacrifice something we enjoy, we open space in our lives for God to enter. Each time we reach for that cookie, or the remote, or whatever it is we have decided to sacrifice, we are reminded of God’s presence. Think of that object of sacrifice as a little post-it-note reminding you to say hello to God, reminding you to meditate on Christ’s suffering and glory. Sacrificing is difficult, but it turns us toward our maker, the One who gives us strength when we are weak and forgiveness when we are even weaker.
Lent is not about how much you can punish yourself. Lent is about finding a way to open yourself to the One who created you and who sacrifices his own identity for you. Lent is about drawing near to God’s presence. Sacrifice reveals to us our own weaknesses and the strength of our desires for things that are not essential, maybe even not good for us. When we are reminded of our own weakness, we turn to God, for help and for mercy.
This last week, Chuck and I have been spending a lot of time with a young couple whose twins were born nearly three months early. We’ve also spent a lot of time with families planning their matriarchs and patriarch’s funerals. In both these cases-at the fragile beginning of life and the quiet end-these families were turned to God, seeking comfort, healing, and understanding.
For these families, sacrifice is not an abstract concept, but a very concrete one. They know that when their security is taken from them, turning to God can bring meaning and comfort.
In a similar, but much smaller way, our sacrifices help us to cling to God. For as our psalmist reminds us today:
As a father cares for his children, *
so does the LORD care for those who fear him.
For he himself knows whereof we are made; *
he remembers that we are but dust.
Our days are like the grass; *
we flourish like a flower of the field;
When the wind goes over it, it is gone, *
and its place shall know it no more.
But the merciful goodness of the LORD endures for ever on those who fear him, *
and his righteousness on children’s children.
God loves us and desires relationship with us. This Lent we are invited to enter more deeply into that relationship.