Each year on Ash Wednesday the Church gives us the opportunity to recall our humble beginnings and the humble way of our ending upon this earth; “Remember that you are dust and unto dust you shall return.” It is a solemn statement that calls us back in many ways to our place in creation, no matter who we are or what we have accomplished—the same call comes to each of us.
So as we reflect on what Lent means to us; we might wonder why, at the beginning of this holy season we would concentrate on a call that reminds us of where we came from (dust) and of where we will return (dust). I believe there is need in this if we are to put our lives in the proper perspective. In the times that Robert and I have traveled, particularly to Third World countries where many people lack the material blessings that we often take for granted, it has let us know in very concrete ways how we are so truly one, with all the world because we know Jesus and of how our loving God does indeed call each one of us, where we are, in our own time, to share the message of God’s great love for each of us, by advocating for the least among us.
Lent may signal for some of us an uncomfortable period of six weeks when we are called in a special way to pay attention to this great message of love and the actions that must necessarily follow if we can truly call ourselves followers of Jesus, the Christ, our brother and friend. Most of us have come out of that old mindset that Lent is a time to make amends for our past indiscretions—to suffer and to do penance because we have disappointed God. It is true that some discipline never hurts any of us—it makes us stronger as individuals to face what life brings, to stand up to evil in our world and perhaps speak the word that will make a difference when such a word is so badly needed and no one else will say it. But if our purpose in giving up something for Lent and punishing ourselves is to make amends with God because She/He is disappointed in us, then we have missed the point my friends, of the Scriptures—the New Testament, in particular. This testament is basically a book of love, love freely given as evidenced in the Story of the Prodigal—there is nothing we can ever do that would separate us from the over-the-top love of our God.
This fact is evidenced for us through the readings the Church has given us for this holy season of Lent:
- All the first readings that we will use during Lent will recall for us times in Israel’s history that God showed graciousness to the people. Today, our reading from Deuteronomy tells the story of God bringing the people out of Egypt amid wonderful signs and into a land flowing with milk and honey.
- All the epistles for Lent will highlight the role that Jesus, the Christ plays in our salvation, and when I use the word,“salvation,” think, saving us from our natural inclinations to at times be less than our best selves as opposed to the idea of saving us from our sins so as to one day win heaven. Today we hear, “there are no tiers or levels—all are welcomed and loved”—the common denominator is our faith.
- All the Gospels during Lent will reveal Jesus’ glory in the face of suffering as well as the mercy and the compassion of God. Recall that we are in the midst of a Year of Mercy promulgated by Pope Francis.
Today’s Gospel shows Jesus at a most vulnerable time; he is alone, exhausted and starving. He is preparing himself for his ministry among the people. He will, as we know, be a different kind of leader than the people who have been waiting for the Messiah, expect.
As we see in the Gospel today, he will not dazzle with cheap tricks to receive gratification from the people, but he will be a servant who will be about mercy, compassion, gentleness, and humility. Again, these are themes that Francis has continually uplifted in his papacy thus far. When Jesus performs signs and wonders; they will come from a compassionate heart that does the right thing, the just thing—the needed thing.
Lent truly is a time to call us back—it is a time of invitation to grow closer to our God who so wants each of us to know that we are mightily loved and cared for. While it is a good thing to perhaps spend some time thinking about our failings, it is good to remember that even in the Scripture readings that the Church has chosen for Lent, any call to repentance is indirect. Rather, these readings assure us of how we are loved and we all need that knowledge, don’t we–the knowledge that we are loved? These readings insist that we should be grateful and trust in our loving God and if necessary, reform our lives.
Whatever we may choose to do this Lent should enable us to commit ourselves again to our God who has been so gracious to us. Pope Francis “agreed” with me in a piece he put out on Ash Wednesday suggesting that what we “give up” for Lent be about moving us closer to others, helping us to be better servants of others. A woman in a group I belong to posted on email this past week that she was giving up “shame” for Lent—shaming herself and others was my take—giving it up! As Francis said, to give something up—going through an empty ritual that basically just helps ourselves, is rather shallow. The trouble with concentrating alone on our sinfulness and Jesus dying for our sins, plus the fact that there is nothing-we-can-ever-do-to-repay-the-debt-mentality, is that we then tend to forget that God loves us even though, and probably because of the fact, that we aren’t perfect.
Our Lenten practices, I believe, are intended to strengthen our faith and trust in God, not to reassure us that we have paid our debts. Lent should indeed open our eyes to the fact that God alone is the one we should turn to in everything—the good, and the not-so good. Psalm 91 so beautifully reminded us of this truth today—“Be with me God, when I am in trouble.”
The true salvation that Jesus offers us all, each one of us, is not saving us from our sins, but in enabling us to be all that we can be as people, modeling our lives after his; being people of justice, mercy and love. A warning though—being such people can get you killed as is evidenced in Jesus’ life.
What our readings truly call us to today, is choosing to do whatever good we do, for the right reason. The Evil One tempted Jesus to do good things—supply his hungry body with food, have the people love him—in his loneliness, and call the angels of God to support him in his need. The trouble is, the good done would have been done for all the wrong reasons. If our fasting, praying, abstaining and almsgiving is to make us feel better about ourselves, then we would probably do better speak a kind word or do a good deed for our neighbor.
We will have that opportunity this next week by partaking in The Feast—the city-wide event held at Central Lutheran church each Wednesday to offer a free meal to the community. Pastor Corrine Denis and her Lutheran Campus Center students are hosts one Wednesday a month at this event and as symbiotic partners in ministry with them; we are invited to help them at this event. Pastor Corrine and I will offer a prayer service during the meal this next Wednesday, February 17 to educate and pray for some movement in our country to eradicate gun violence.
It is good to remember finally that the readings today and throughout Lent show no interest in what we can do for God, but in what God has done for us. The Scripture messages don’t primarily call us to repent our sins, but rather to open our hearts to God in faith, being ready for the ways this same loving God will prompt us toward action in our own particular lives.
So, my friends, I haven’t given us a necessarily easy way to go this Lent; a one-two-three-step plan, but perhaps we can recall the many times God has stepped into our lives as a savior—much needed, and give thanks this Lent. Or we might think of some subtle ways we are subject to temptation in our lives—to perhaps do a seemingly good thing, but for the wrong reason? And finally, we can think of some particular practices or devotions that we can do this Lent that will strengthen and deepen our trust in God–because my friends, that is truly what it is all about—Lent and the Christian life—to open ourselves completely to our God, who has first loved us and loved us so well.