Joel 2. 1, 2, 12 – 17
Matthew 6. 1 – 6, 16 – 21
“And now we give you thanks because each year you give us this joyful season when we prepare to celebrate the paschal mystery with mind and heart renewed.”
I wonder how those words strike you, this evening, on one of the most solemn days of the year? Do you think of Lent as a ‘joyful’ season? And do you thank God for it, once you’ve gone a week or two without chocolate?
Those words are part of the preface to the great prayer of thanksgiving that we’ll pray later on. But they strike a bit of a discord, perhaps, with what we’ve heard so far; and what we’ll do very soon, during the liturgy of penitence.
Indeed, throughout tonight’s liturgy we will bewail our “manifold sins and wickedness.” Immediately before receiving the sacrament we’ll acknowledge how little we deserve it, in the prayer of humble access (often known as the ‘humble crumble.’)
And for the non-believer, this liturgy might feel pretty miserable, and not all that hopeful.
But of course, as Christians, we know that we begin this fast of forty days in the light of Easter. We recall Christ’s passion, while knowing he has already won the victory we long for. Christ has already won forgiveness for the sins we confess tonight; there’s nothing so bad that we can do, for which Christ’s sacrifice is insufficient.
And so we see that this liturgy is not about the punishment of the sinner; but rather about the mercy of God. Lent is above all a preparation to rejoice in God’s love.
This is the starting point of our penitence. God’s goodness and his mercy, the great sacrifice of his Son, the bright light of Easter life in Christ.
We see it in the history of this holy season: at first, a period of a day or two, then a whole week, and finally a forty day season, designed as a time of preparation for the joyful celebration of new life at Easter.
A time of preparation for baptism; and also for those who had fallen away from the Church for whatever reason, so that they could be publicly reconciled and restored to the sacramental life.
So not a season of punishment; but rather, of healing. A celebration of life; not a mourning for our mortality.
But it is, of course, a season that we must take seriously. And that might be painful. Acknowledging those parts of our lives that hold us back from God; giving up our reliance on the things we become attached to; taking seriously the Church’s exhortation to prayer, fasting, and self-denial…
All of that means not just a quick spiritual clean up in time for Easter. It means nothing less than the turning of our minds and hearts towards God.
We heard it in our two readings this evening. The prophet Joel calls people to “rend their hearts, and not their clothing.” Rending clothing only lets the cold in; rending our hearts allows space for the love and light of God to fill us and transform us.
Jesus denounces those who practice their piety so that others may see how righteous they are. True prayer and penitence is not about outward and visible things, but what goes on in the secret and hidden places, in our minds and in our hearts.
Only in truly turning our minds and hearts towards God will we receive the reward. Only in storing up treasure in heaven—the lasting treasure—will we set our heart right with God.
So why do we mark ourselves with ashes tonight? Aren’t we just like those who pray loudly on the street corner, or disfigure their faces with fasting?
Well, if we seriously take time to consider what those things are that need to change in our lives, it could be easy to become overwhelmed. To heap them up like burdens upon ourselves, something to drag around with us all through Lent, and remind us of how awful we are.
To save us from this, the Church gives us ash. We exchange those burdens, tonight, for the little burden of a symbol of ash upon our foreheads. Ash in the sign of a cross: no longer a symbol of punishment and death, but the ultimate symbol of liberation and life.
And though that mark may wash off tomorrow, we keep that little burden with us, to remind us that we truly can cast our cares before the Lord. That he frees us from all the stuff that holds us back.
In the same way, our little burden of giving up something we enjoy, saves us from the greater burden of becoming reliant upon it; of the danger of losing our joy in it, and finding instead that we can’t do without it.
We will only find our Lenten penance a heavy burden if we take it up unwillingly. But if we take it up joyfully, the love and mercy of God will make it light. In turning our minds and hearts, we will become more aware of that love and mercy, and come closer to the One in whom true joys are to be found.
So may we find joy in our Lenten journey this year. May we, who labour and are heavy laden, come to the one who gives us rest. And may we believe him when he promises that his yoke is easy, and his burden is light. For there, and only there, will we find rest for our souls. Amen.