Ash Wednesday – today we are reminded by the church that we all fall short in our journey into the heart of God. We hear the words of God – return to me. As ashes are applied to our foreheads, we are reminded of our own mortality and how life is going to end with us standing before our God in judgment. By choice I have always used the optional second prayer while applying ashes to the foreheads of our community. That option has us saying “turn from sin and be faithful to the gospel.”
I made that choice in the first year of ministry because there has to be some day, some time when we must make a decision to faithfully live as a disciple. Not just changing how we live for the forty days of lent but to embrace discipleship in every aspect of our lives. As we begin lent we should come before our God with the same attitude as the leper did this past Sunday. Kneeling before God that leper said if you wish you can make me clean. We too are polluted by our own sinfulness and we should also ask God to make us clean. Asking without doubt but with hearts filled with faith because we know God’s response will always be “of course I will it.” This day is not about our final judgment; it is about God’s grace which is always there for us.
This day is a day to realize that God has always willed for us to reflect his glory. It is a day to realize that we have always had a choice to live as disciples, totally dependent on the grace of God for our holiness. It is a day to realize that there is nothing we have done; nothing we can do now and nothing we will ever do in the future that will separate God from us – even as our sin separates us from him. We cannot earn his love nor can we earn his forgiveness. Those two things are always available to us by a loving God as a free gift of grace.
I fail to understand why we have been so conditioned to believe that we must constantly pay for the wrong choices we have made in our lives. I have seen this lack of trust in God’s grace time and time again. For me it came to light in that first year as I began to minister to our community. It began with a 90 year old man named Larry, who was in hospice waiting to die. I was ordained less than two months when I first met him. On my first visit with him, I walked into his room wearing my clerics and introduced myself to him. Immediately he said to me that he wanted to go to confession. I explained that I was a deacon and could not hear his confession but that I would make sure a priest came to see him.
Over the year that I visited Larry, I listened to him as he expressed his “hope” for mercy when he died. As he discussed with me the things he felt guilt over during his life, I talked to him about God’s grace. Put this in context, the wrongs that he regretted had happened more than 70 years earlier. Those things he was still guilty about he acknowledged were told to many priests during confession. His regrets were confessed and confessed and confessed over and over again during those seventy years.
The amazing thing was I had done much worse things in my life. I am certain that Larry was still confessing them up to the time of his death. Remember you are dust and to dust you shall return was something he feared because he was afraid of judgment. His frequent confessions and absolution did not remove his guilt nor bring him closer to God.
Ash Wednesday is a day for new beginnings. It is a time not to remember the past but to look forward to the future. In the prophet Jeremiah (29:11) we are told of God’s plan for our life. He tells us those plans are “…for welfare and not for calamity to give (us) a future and a hope.” Yet I have met far too many Larry’s in my years ministering to people. Far too many of God’s creation are waiting for God to inflict his wrath on them. We need to take to heart his words in scripture “I acknowledged my sin to you (God) and my iniquity I did not hide; I said, “I will confess my transgressions to the LORD”; and you forgave the guilt of my sin (Ps. 25:12).
Today offers us a chance to appropriate the grace of our baptism for ourselves. On that day, as the sign of the cross was placed on our foreheads we were claimed for Christ and were welcomed with great joy into the community of faith. That day we died to sin and were raised to life with Christ. Today we reclaim the blessings of our baptism. We confess our sins by acknowledging that “we like sheep have all gone astray, each following his own way, but the Lord laid it upon him the sins of us all” (Is 53:6).
As ashes are put upon our foreheads let us go forth and use that visible sign on our foreheads to give witness to God’s mercy. Let us be bold today and acknowledge that we do believe in a merciful God who made us reflecting his glory and he restored that glory when he sent his son who died for the forgiveness of sin. Let us turn from sin and be faithful to the gospel.