Even now, says the LORD,
return to me with your whole heart,
with fasting, and weeping, and mourning;
Rend your hearts, not your garments,
and return to the LORD, your God.
Every Ash Wednesday we hear the exact same reading, Epistle, and Gospel.
The first reading from the Book of the Prophet Joel is quite beautiful. Its poetry, God’s call to return. Come back with our whole hearts! Come back now. Quit whatever we are doing and return. Offer up prayer and tears to the Lord. Punishment shall be set aside, and the Lord will forgive us and welcome us home.
Does anyone know when the Prophet Joel wrote this message? The fact is, no one really knows when it was written. There are no actual historical references in Joel such that a definitive time can be set. Conjecture ranges from 900 to 400 years before Christ. That is a span of half a millennium. How appropriate because Joel’s message is timeless.
From the sin of Adam and Eve to the sins of the people in Joel’s half-millennia, to our present-day, Joel’s words ring true. It is our weakness to be seduced by sin and to fall away over-and-over. Yet, we have ready help, the grace of God, the promptings of the Holy Spirit to help us cast off sin and to reach out such that Jesus lifts us to stand again.
The Holy Church in her wisdom gives us the season of Lent to double down on our return and on our tears, to build up our reserve of spiritual strength, and to put into practice those virtues that countermand sin. Lent is our opportunity to return, to do the necessary workout, and to resolve not to fall again.
Lent calls us to a discipline of action and thought. It calls us to fortify our practice of faith so that what we have done weakly – and that weak and undetermined action insufficient to the challenges of the past – we may now and heretofore do with strength.
- If our prayer was occasional and weak, it is now to be a continuous action – life lived as prayer.
- If our charity was trifling, it is now to be sacrificial.
- If our fasting and abstinence were an afterthought once we were full, it is now to be dedicated sacrifice that causes us to feel hunger and to recall our real hungering is after Christ.
We stand here at the foot of a steep hill. At the top of the hill – the cross. On the other side of the hill the glory of God, a clean heart and conscience. Here at the foot of the hill – well – just where we are. It is time to climb. Now!
Let us together ascend to the cross. Let us linger there and shed tears for what we have said, done, thought, and left undone. Let us – marked with ash – look to the suffering Jesus, His wounds, knowing that a piece of me is in there, and then rush headlong downhill from the cross into the arms of our waiting, forgiving, and loving God.
Throughout this Lent we will delve into the problem of sin and set strategies that move us from self-centeredness and spiritual shortcoming, through the struggle to operationalize a life deep in Christ. We will meet the challenge with Christian excellence, an excellence that must permeate our individual and communal life.
Throughout this Lent we will walk through the seven deadly sins (pride, envy, gluttony, lust, anger, greed, and sloth) and their antidote, the seven contrary virtues (humility, kindness, abstinence, chastity, patience, liberality, diligence). We will study contemporary examples of sin in film and literature. In studying, we will find what is required of us. In doing what is required we will grow stronger. Armed with God’s gift of grace freedom freely offered we will overcome! Let us begin.