Grace, Mercy, and Peace to you from God our Father and Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
Today begins the observance of Lent, the slow and measured journey to the cross, where we see Jesus: the Savior who hangs, bloodied and scorned, for us. It is a time of reflection and repentance, for us here and for the Church around the world. Over the next a forty days, not counting Sundays, we will prepare for Easter by humbling ourselves to receive Christ as our Risen Lord and Savior.
Originally, the season of Lent was a period of time when baptismal candidates were taught the faith and questioned, much like our own confirmation students. In 325 AD, the first reference to the time period of forty days was recorded at the Council of Nicaea, and just a few years later the great church father Athanasius asked his congregation to hold a fast during this time. Since then other customs have formed as Lent developed more into a penitential season, where we reflect on our own sinful nature and mortality. While we journey through lent we will explore some of these customs, like fasting and excluding the “A” word from worship, and how these traditions help places our hearts in a more humble, receptive position.
To begin with, today we are observing Ash Wednesday. Ashes have a variety of meaning in the Bible. Doing a quick search you will find that often people put on sackcloth and threw ashes in the air to cover them in order to express grief, humiliation, or repentance. This custom goes back to the Old Testament and was a common practice all the way up through the Middle Ages. The idea was that the scratchy sackcloth, like that of burlap, against the skin and the ashes would be an outward representation of the emotional turmoil they felt inside.
One of the best examples in the Old Testament is of Job. When he was told of the destruction of all his property and the death of his children and when he himself was struck with disease he tore his clothes and went to sit in ashes. When his friends had come to him and saw the state of grief he was in, they too covered themselves in ashes and sat with him. Another example includes the king of Nineveh repenting at Jonah’s warning and dressing himself in sackcloth and sat in ashes. Even God Himself in Jeremiah commanded the people to put on sackcloth and ashes in mourning, yet this was not to mourn something that has already happened but to mourn the coming destruction as the Lord has judged them and is giving them over to their iniquities.
God’s judgment and destruction are another meaning of ashes in Scripture. One of the best known examples in this case is God bringing down judgment upon Sodom and Gomorrah when He brought them down to ashes. In Ezekiel, God laments and tells the King of Tyre that because of his sin God has brought fire against him that consumed him and turned him into ashes in the sight of all. And when God condemns Adam for his sin in the garden, God declares, “By the sweat of your face you shall eat bread, till you return to the ground, for out of it you were taken: for you are dust and to dust you shall return.” So too, dust and ashes remind us of our judgment and morality. In our sin, we have been reduced to a heap ashes before God.
Recognizing our humble estate, those same ashes also become a symbol of our repentance. Job’s complaining turns into sin when He accuses God of being unjust. God confronts Job and declares that not only did God create the world, but He still cares for it. Job is reminded of his mortality and lowly estate and confesses to God, “I know that you can do all things, and that no purpose of yours can be thwarted. …I have uttered what I did not understand, things too wonderful for me, which I did not know. …I had heard of you by the hearing of the ear, but now my eye sees you; therefore I despise myself, and repent in dust and ashes.
Daniel recognized the destruction of Jerusalem and the Babylonian captivity as the punishment of Israel by God for their sins and responds, “Then I turned my face to the Lord God, seeking him by prayer and pleas for mercy with fasting and sackcloth and ashes.” What followed was a confession of those sins and the shame and humiliation that those sins have brought upon them. Daniel also recognizes that God’s judgment is just and right, for the Israelites did indeed sin against God, and continued to sin even after God had warned them of the coming destruction, yet He appeals to God’s steadfast love and faithfulness to His people and pleads for God to remove His wrath from among His people and to restore them once again. In both cases, in Job and with the people of Israel, after their repentance God does in fact have mercy upon them and restores them.
We are sinful people. When we acknowledge that sin, it does indeed bring grief and shame. Our hearts are broken, and so we repent and come before God as broken people. We recognize that there is nothing we can do and so we throw ourselves upon the mercy of God. But we do not do so as people without hope, but we do so as people with a promise, and as we cling to that promise we trust that God will act in His mercy. Yet we also know that that mercy has come at a price for our sins could not go unpunished.
So God sent to us His only begotten Son, as He is the only one who could bear the weight of the sins for the whole world. We rejoice knowing that our sins are forgiven, but we also recognize that we are only forgiven because our sins have been paced on Christ. He has become our scapegoat, the sacrificial lamb whose blood was slain for the people. As we acknowledge our sin, we acknowledge our participation in the sufferings and death of Christ. If He had not gone to that cross, our sins would not be forgiven. He took the punishment we deserved and experienced the fullness of Hell on the cross so we don’t have to. And so we place ashes on our forehead to remind us of our sin and as a sign of our repentance, but we make them in the sign of the cross to remind us of Christ’s sacrifice.
Though our sin has reduced us to ashes, God has worked salvation among His people and brings us out of the ashes like a phoenix being reborn. We declare palmist, “The Lord is high above all nations, and his glory above the heavens! Who is like the Lord our God, who is seated on high, who looks far down on the heavens and the earth? He raises the poor from the dust and lifts the needy from the ash heap, to make them sit with princes, with the princes of his people.” And we proclaim with Isaiah that the Lord has come “to grant [comfort] to those who mourn in Zion, to give them a beautiful headdress instead of ashes, the oil of gladness instead of mourning, the garment of praise instead of a faint spirit; that they may be called oaks of righteousness, the planting of the Lord, that he may be glorified.”
And so, during this Lenten season, we watch and we wait. We see Christ making His way to the cross, and we see the grief, the humiliation and shame that he bears for our salvation, and we repent, thanking God for all that He has done.
May the peace of God which surpasses all understanding guard your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus. Amen.