2023-02-22 Ash Wednesday
Grace, mercy and peace be to you from God our Father and our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Amen.
Alongside Christmas and Pentecost, the Easter season is and has always been the most important and most celebrated event in all of Christianity. Like any party or celebration, it does take time and effort to prepare and get ready for! Could you imagine throwing a milestone birthday party for someone you loved but not taking the time to get a birthday cake, find the candles, blow up balloons, or buy a present?! Probably not!
The season of Lent developed as a time of getting ready, a time of preparation for Easter. It’s 40 days long and usually lines up with the Northern Hemisphere’s season of Spring. Our English word “Lent” actually has it’s roots in the word “lengthen” – an indicator that the days are growing longer, winter is finally coming to an end! Also, it was a time of preparation for new Christians who would be Baptized and/or Confirmed on Holy Saturday in the midnight Easter eve vigil.
So, for 40 days the church prepares and gets ready. These 40 days do not count the Sundays in Lent (they are “in Lent” but not “of Lent” – as each and every Sunday is still a miniature Easter). 40. It’s a very Biblical time. For 40 years the Israelites wandered in the wilderness. For 40 days Jesus was in the desert and faced temptation from the devil. The ancient Christian Bishop Athanasius asked his congregation to “keep the 40 day fast.” Hence, Lent quickly became a spiritual preparation time of inner purification, sanctification and the breaking off of sinful habits. It was a time to exercise virtues like fasting and prayer, mercy and alms giving (giving money to the poor and needy). It was also a time of reconciliation and laying aside all enmity and hatred people have for one another.
This Lenten season was and is a journey to Easter that we begin tonight. It is a season of preparation and repentance. It kicks off with Ash Wednesday. This custom of being marked with ashes in the sign of the cross developed in 6th century France. It was an outward visual sign of repentance and a reminder of human mortality – a mortality that we readily recognize at every committal service we do as Lutheran Christians. “We now commit the body of our sister to the ground; earth to earth, ashes to ashes, dust to dust.” It also takes us back in time, to the garden of Eden, to the dust of our creation. Ash Wednesday is a very good reminder of exactly who we are and who God has made us to be.
The season of Lent also begins a unique time of restricted joy, of muted celebration. In our Sunday Divine Service, the Alleluias and the Gloria, those most jubilant parts of the service are omitted from our Liturgy as we focus more on themes of repentance and seeking God’s mercy, rather than lavishing God with jubilant praise. People also think that Lent is based on prescriptions of giving “something” up – whatever that may be: dancing, playing cards, chocolate, alcohol, TV, etc. As such, people have come to think of Lent in a negative light rather than a positive experience of spiritual discipline. It’s a Debbie Downer church season, a veritable wet blanket on a cold evening. But the purpose of Lent is not to force on us a few formal obligations. Rather, it is intended to be a rototiller! It exists to churn up the soil of our hearts and minds to prepare them for the work of God’s Spirit, to experience the hidden “thirst and hunger” for communion with the Living the God.
All of these things in the life of the church during Lent combine together to produce an atmosphere and state of mind that can be described as a “bright sadness.” I love that description of Lent! Bright Sadness. But what is meant by it? It seems contradictory. Whenever we experience grief or hard times, it’s seldom a “bright” experience. But this is life in the Kingdom of God. It drives home the point that even though we walk through the darkness and the very valley of the shadow of death itself, the darkness has not and cannot overcome the light of Christ. This is our brightness in the midst of sadness. Even though we are once again surrounded by the heavy, deep purple paraments and the Lenten songs tend to sound more minor than usual, we experience and feel that such sadness is actually “bright” and that a mysterious transformation is about to take place in us. It is as if we were reaching a place where the noises and fuss of life, of the street, of everything that usually fills our days and even nights have no access – a place where they have no power. All that which seemed so tremendously important to us as to fill our minds and consume us, those states of anxiety which have virtually become our second nature, disappear somewhere and we begin to feel free, light and happy. It is not the noisy and superficial happiness that comes and goes twenty times a day. It is the profound, bright happiness which comes from knowing that this yearly journey to the cross will open our eyes to the brightness of God’s Kingdom through the one and only cross of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.
This is why we need Lent in its fullness, this wonderful season of bright sadness. We come to understand the heaviness of the purple and why Lenten services are purposely less jubilant. We come to realize that this season exists to bring us to a stark spiritual awakening. Our mortality is very real. Our possessions, our people and everything around us is transitory. Our “Martha Minds” need to be swapped for “Mary Minds.” There is one thing needful. One thing that lasts for all eternity. It is none other than our Savior. To sit at the feet of our Messiah and receive His pearl of great price is our true goal as Christians. His amazing grace lavishly poured out on the cross for us is our bright sadness. And so, we journey. Through repentance and prayer and fasting and alms giving, all signs that faith is living, we journey into the presence of our Saviour.
The Lenten services, the self-denial, the sacrifice, the restricted joy all become “transfigured” as the hidden, inner beauty of the season of Lent illuminates our hearts and minds. It’s like watching a sunrise in the mountains. The valley is still dark while early rays of sunshine begin to enlighten the mountaintops. What at first seemed like sadness is now experienced as the first movements of the soul recovering it’s lost depth. This is what the verse before the reading of the Holy Gospel proclaims: “Return to the Lord Your God, for He is gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love, and abounding in steadfast love.”
Lent is indeed a journey. A journey of recovering who we are: not just a simple collection of ashes and dust, but rather a wondrously created people, washed and fed by God’s grace. The “bright sadness” is the sadness of our exile from our Lord, the waste that we have made of our lives – all eclipsed by the brightness of God’s presence and forgiveness for sin, the joy of the recovered desire for being with God and the peace of the recovered heavenly home. This is the attitude, the atmosphere, and the state of mind of the season of Lent. This is the transfigured reality of our Lenten journey – a journey to the cross. For the cross boldly declares that death is not our ultimate destiny. It is not our end! For our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ has transfigured death by His death and brought about life and resurrection through His empty tomb.
Tonight we are marked with ashes to remind us that we are dust and to dust we shall return. Yet we are also reminded of our Lord’s Baptismal promise to us. It washes us clean and gives us life. It connects us to Christ’s cross and passion giving us the certain hope of the resurrection to eternal life. This is the bright sadness of Lent and journey to the cross. May the almighty God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit bless your Lenten journey. In His Holy Name, Amen.