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 There are no actual historical references in Joel such that a definitive time can be set.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.

Reflection for Ash Wednesday 2014

WornCross_Standard

Brothers and sisters:
We are ambassadors for Christ,
as if God were appealing through us.
We implore you on behalf of Christ,
be reconciled to God.

Is it possible?

How might we go about being reconciled to God?

Being reconciled to God is not something we can accomplish based on our merits. We could stand and pray all day, lead the holiest of lives, give to charity, fast, do good works – yet we would still fall short of the glory of God. St. Paul says this very clearly in his letter to the Romans:

for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God (Romans 3:23)

Even if we spend our entire lives striving for perfection in God’s eyes, we will fall short. We will sin. It may be by anger, or even pride – thinking that we are somehow special and set apart in God’s eyes. Those little evils will creep in. It is our human nature. So then how might we be reconciled to God?

Hope won in Christ

Being reconciled – being redeemed – was accomplished once and for all in the sacrificial death of our Lord, Jesus Christ.

Jesus’ coming and His entire work were focused on the goal of reconciling us. His sacrificial death was the culmination of this reconciliation. Before He died He journeyed through the streets and countryside of Israel and by mighty works, wonders, and signs He showed forth the power of God. In His glorious resurrection He left us the hope, the promise of what we will be.

Yet, as Paul says, we must do something to be reconciled to God. What is it?

Faith

Paul told the Romans that our first step, the key moment in our lives, comes when we make a profession of faith in Jesus. The first, foremost, and most important thing we must do is to be regenerated by a personal proclamation of faith in Jesus, asking Him forgiveness of our sins, and committing our lives to Him.

To show the necessity of faith Paul holds up the example of Abraham. He says: “Against all hope, Abraham in hope believed.Abraham’s act of faith in God was credited to Him as righteousness. If we have any hope for righteousness, for a share in the reconciliation Jesus won for us, we must believe. To be reconciled we must believe – that is what we must do!

Following

From that act of faith we must commit to lives lived in accord with Jesus’ teaching.

Before He died Jesus journeyed through the streets and countryside of Israel – and did not place His focus on simply producing mighty works, wonders, and signs. That would have made Him a side show. Rather His primary mission on the road to Jerusalem was focused on teaching us how we should live, how we should conduct ourselves as His followers. To be reconciled we cannot simply profess faith and then go on living as if we had not been reconciled. To be reconciled means to be changed, to be on a lifelong journey of transformation. As regenerated beings, reconciled beings, we are called to a journey toward lives lived in full accord and unity with Jesus’ way of life.

Lent

Lent, this annual forty day period of renewal, is our moment of renewed reconciliation. If we take these days and this time seriously we will use them to reconcile our day-to-day lives to the faith we once declared. We will use them get back on the journey reconciled persons are to live. We will work toward the reconciled life we promised we would live.

The way of Lent

Our Lenten exercise – our sacrifice is a set of practices that help us to unite ourselves with Jesus. To be like Jesus, to follow His way, and to call to mind all that Jesus experienced and taught, we fast like Jesus, pray as Jesus taught, are generous as Jesus was generous, forgive as Jesus forgave, and remain watchful for His return. 

Lent, taken seriously, trains our way of living and cleanses us of the failures and abuses we committed over the past year. It is our opportunity to show forth our reconciliation. It is our chance to reclaim lives as reconciled beings. In our Lenten practices we work to build lives re-committed to Jesus and thankful for Jesus’ reconciliation.

Do not use this time in vain:

We hear Paul’s call, his proclamation that this is a very acceptable time; now is the day of salvation. This Lent, as every day of our lives, is the day of salvation. Each day of Lent let us be thankful for our reconciliation. Each day we must commit to doing all necessary to stick to our journey as reconciled men and women; a journey toward lives lived in full accord and unity with Jesus’ way of life.

Let us fast, pray, forgive, and be watchful and generous each day. Let us bless the Lord each day for our reconciliation that frees us from guilt (have faith in Jesus’ forgiveness). Let us bless the Lord each day for freedom from fear (nothing has power over us, not even death).

Each day let us acknowledge that we have been chosen by God – the Holy Spirit called us to reconciliation by faith. Each day let us remember that God asks us to use our gifts and abilities to make unique contributions to our faith family. Each day let us be confident that while our sins make us subject to judgment, Jesus’ blood make us worthy and beautiful in the eyes of our heavenly Father.

Let us wake up each day and shun retirement and complacency – each of us in the family of faith is here for God’s reasons. He has called us to work, for a purpose that does not end until the day we die.

Paul reminds us that we must not: receive the grace of God in vain. This Lent is about how we work, journey, and live in accord with the destiny God opened to us when we by faith accepted His reconciliation. What we did and received by faith – reconciliation – we must now live.