FEBRUARY 17, 2021
The Prayer of the Day
Let us pray….(Silence) Almighty and ever-living God, you hate nothing you have made, and you forgive the sins of all who are penitent. Create in us new and honest hearts, so that, truly repenting of our sins, we may receive from you, the God of all mercy, full pardon and forgiveness through your Son, Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever. Amen
1 Corinthians 15:20-28, 45-49
Title: A Not-To-Be-Missed Day
For the past year, as we have lived eleven months now in a pandemic, there has been much attention and guidance given by elected officials, health care professionals, and media outlets on how to observe holidays. Whether it was Thanksgiving or Christmas, New Years or Superbowl Sunday, we have been advised by various voices how to gather, how many may gather, what to do, what not to do. And it has clearly been sound advice, because following each holiday, painfully aware that many did not take the advice, there have been spiking numbers of virus spread and resulting illness, hospitalizations and deaths.
However, interestingly, but not surprising, these societal voices have not chimed in recently with guidance for observing this day, Ash Wednesday, one of the most solemn days on our calendar. Not surprising because this is one church festival that pop culture has stayed clear of. No cards or candies, no decorations or food favorites, no singable songs or heartwarming stories. Nope, none of the usual sugar-coating commandeering.
And of course, this avoidance is further not surprising because this is a day that we are asked to face our own mortality, to confess the gravity of our sinfulness, to examine our brokenness, and to admit our powerlessness and our complete dependance on the grace, mercy, and love of God made known to us through Jesus Christ.
None of these challenges and themes are in anyway something that our death-defying, flaw-hiding, façade-presenting, self-centered society wants to do, has any time for, or any interest in. We’ve seen countless examples over this past year as people have stubbornly ignored health and safety guidelines, as our nation continues to refuse to confess and address the sins of racism and white supremacy, as we turn away from the needs of those coming from other lands seeking the safety and security that we have in abundance. All this and more has always been there but this past year, this year of 2020 has brought it into keener and renewed focus for a variety of reasons.
One colleague recently said during a discussion of preparing for Ash Wednesday 2021 that she feels like it has been a year of Ash Wednesday. And for many, that is certainly the case – facing mortality has rarely been such a daily occurrence. And yet, if only our broken nation and society had been observing a year of Ash Wednesday. May this past year only help us to be more honest, more probing, more self-examining with ourselves as we observe this day.
One could say that these last 11 months have been a prophet to us in the spirit of Isaiah. For this year has done what Isaiah is being commanded to do: ‘Announce to the people their rebellion…day after day they seek me and delight to know my ways, as if they were a nation that practiced righteousness and did not forsake the ordinance of their God.”
Yes, as a nation we sure could use an Ash Wednesday. But let us not allow that big picture those big societal shortcomings to distract us from announcing our own rebellion, examining our own need for God. On every level – societal, corporate, ecclesiastical, individual, public private, actions, inactions, thoughts, and motivations – that is at the center of this day. Whether or not you are able to get ashes today. Whether or not you have found another meaningful practice for this day. (If you are still searching, we are offering some guidance on our website.) At the heart of this day is saying “I am a sinner and I am wholly dependent on God’s grace.” It is declared in the same spirit with which people who gather in 12 Step meetings declare their addiction. It is confession, but it is also stating that which binds the gathered together. Reminding them, us, that we are in this together and that there is strength and healing to be found journeying together, joined through Christ, strengthened by the Spirit who makes us one.
In this time of isolation, it is important on this solemn day that we remind ourselves that we are not alone. Ash Wednesday is not about beating ourselves up for wrongs and shortcomings. Hear again from the prayer of the day: God, you hate nothing that have made.
And because of this truth, while we are taking time to confess and confront our failings and mortality on this day, God is breaking through our death to speak words of promise and life. This grace-filled merciful, promise – first made to us at the baptismal font, is now ours forever. We hear God’s word of new life – made known in the person of Jesus Christ who came to live among us, to take on our life and our death, to teach and to heal, to bring the kingdom of God near so that we might have a foretaste of all that is to come, even while we are yet sinners.
This, and every moment, is the hour Jesus is proclaiming when the dead will hear his voice and live. We are the dead. The spirit opens our ears to hear his voice. And this new life that he brings is not reward, but rather the gift that is given and more fully discovered (as in uncovered) when we start by admitting that we are the dead ones who need to hear his good news.
When you think about it, it’s really too bad that society doesn’t join in on this feast day the way they do some of the others. Because the good news we hear today that it is being proclaimed to us as we are looking death in the face, provides a peace and comfort, a hope and joy beyond our understanding.
So let us, with thankful hearts and encouraged spirits, accept the invitation to Lent. And in so doing, take up the journey that starts today at our graves. A journey that has us walking with Jesus and seeking to discover a deeper understanding of the gift he brings until our journey ends at his empty and death-defeating grave. A symbol of the victory that is shared with us, confirming the promise of God, enriching the foretaste of Christ’s feast to come, and renewing the Spirit that is at work within us.
The Rev. Mark Erson