Ash Wednesday Message 2023

Back on New Year’s Day I was impressed by what the Rev. Tina Rathbone, rector at Grace in the Southern Berkshires, wrote in her weekly message to the parish. She wrote:

“Another new year, another chance to do and be more of what we hoped we’d do and be in the years before now. There is surely a place for New Year’s resolutions, but in my own life at least they never seem to last, so instead, this year, I’ve settled on a simple, one-word anchor: ‘trust’. Trust that what seems good will deepen, that what seems heavy will lighten, and that what seems unclear will dissolve into clarity when the time is right.”

I think this is a powerful and refreshing way to look at the New Year. I, too, have trouble keeping my New Year’s resolutions. Like the one when I vow that when I am in conversations about baseball, I will be kind and nice to Red Sox fans. I know I always give up on the resolution around now when Spring Training starts.

And maybe we should consider dimensions of Lent in the same way that Tina invited us to see New Year’s. Another one of the many talented preachers we have in WMA is seminarian Jimmy Pickett. Here is what he said connecting the season of Lent to the Transfiguration of Jesus.

“The Church has given us this gift of seeing the Transfiguration just before we begin our Lenten journey. Over the years Lent has become for many, a painful season, the message of self-denial and repentance may be warped into a message of self-hatred and unworthiness, but that’s not what Lent should be. In the earliest days, Lent was a season of preparation for Baptism and welcoming people back into the life of the Church. We are about to enter a season where we follow Jesus into the wilderness to be given gifts, it is a season to reckon with the world as it is, knowing that we don’t journey alone. Upon the Holy Mountain we hear a voice coming from the cloud saying ‘This is my Son, the Beloved; with Him I am well pleased; Listen to Him! ‘Immediately we fall to the ground, overcome by fear, but Jesus comes to touch us, saying ‘get up and do not be afraid.’ We see the Transfigured Body of Jesus at the beginning of this journey of Discipleship so we can see that our own bodies will be glorified in God’s time. And that Light that has been growing since Christmas now goes before us into the wilderness of our lives. Whatever darkness you are facing in your life, you don’t face it alone, this community (the Church) is here to journey with you and Christ leads our way through the darkness.”

Yes, the early church used the season of Lent to prepare candidates for baptism. We know at the end of Lent, water would be poured and the words “I baptize you in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.” We don’t know what other prayers they used but one of ours in The Book of Common Prayer is this:

“Heavenly Father, we thank you that be water and the Holy Spirit you have bestowed on these your servants the forgiveness of sin, and raised them to the new life of grace. Sustain them, O Lord, in your Holy Spirit. Give them an inquiring and discerning heart, the courage to will and to persevere, a spirit to know and to love you, and the gift of joy and wonder in all your works.”

I love that prayer. Maybe it gives us another path in Lent. Yes, repentance is important. Humility and self-reflection is important. But what if this was also a time to develop inquiring and discerning hearts — or, in other ways, be curious about what God in Christ is up to now. Maybe it is a time to pray for courage and perseverance— what we constantly referred to as “resilience” in the worst months of the pandemic. And if we looked for joy and wonder in all God’s works, we would be doing a whole lot more about caring for creation.

The liturgical act that follows the Prayer Book instructions for Lent is the imposition of ashes with the words “Remember you are dust and to dust you shall return.” That is a true statement. But it is only half of the whole truth. We know, really know, that the Resurrection Jesus tells us the rest of the truth: “Remember Love is stronger than death, and to that Love you shall return.”

The cross and resurrection go together. Those two statements should go together. When you come forward for the imposition of ashes I will only say the first truth as it is written in the Prayer Book. I don’t want to get in trouble with the bishop. But as you turn to go back to your pew, I invite you to say the whole truth in your soul: “Remember, Love is stronger than death and to that Love you are returned.”

Soon after the imposition of ashes comes the Litany of Penitence. It is a brutally honest confession of our sins — some personal and some social. Just a word about that.

One of the gravest sins we have in our country is gun violence. Gun violence does not get mentioned by name in the litany but I think it falls under “our blindness to human need and suffering, and our indifference to injustice and cruelty.”

Alongside Bishops United Against Gun Violence and with many other organizations and individuals, I have been working for ten years to address the public health crisis of gun violence. It is far worse than it was ten years ago. It is now the leading cause of death for children in our country. In other places I have spoken about our American worship of the gun god. And it gets so discouraging. I have found a four-step inner path to be helpful to develop the perseverance and courage I was offered in baptism. I commit myself to ending the public health crisis of gun violence. Then I get discouraged. Then I acknowledge I am discouraged. And then I recommit.

I invite you to consider that path as we pray the litany. For example, when we ask forgiveness for “our prejudice and contempt to those who differ from us,” in our souls let’s recommit to social change.

“For our waste and pollution of your creation, and our lack of concern for those who come after us.” I will think of my little grandchildren and wonder what our fragile earth, our island home, will be like when they are my age. And I recommit to caring for God’s creation.

The litany is brutal and true and honest. As we acknowledge it and feel it, may we do in Lent what Tina Rathbone invited us to do at New Year’s and focus on the word “trust.” And may we focus on Jesus walking with us in the wilderness saying, “get up and do not be afraid.”

Let us go into Lent praying the closing prayer we say every evening: “Glory to God whose power, working in us, can do infinitely more than we can ask or imagine. Glory to God from generation to generation in the Church and in Christ Jesus for ever and ever. Amen.”

Photo: Photo by Annika Gordon

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