Signs of Grace (Ash Wednesday, March 6, 2019)
Once again, we begin our 40–day journey through Lent. 40 days of disciplined reflection on our Christian life. 40 days of seeking to listen to God. 40 days of sensing the God within us. 40 days of reaching out with God’s love.
We do it every year. But it’s not the same journey. This is not last year. We are different today than we were a year ago. Things have happened in our lives and in the world, for better and for worse. We have all experienced changes in our lives.
Here we are, a year later, and once more God’s spirit is leading us into Lent.
We tend to think of Lent as a heavy season. We’ve grown up with the idea of Lent as a season of discipline, and we don’t much like that idea. It reeks of punishment, or being corrected.
But discipline actually comes from the Latin word discipulus, which means “pupil”. Discipline has to do with learning, with growing.
I think that’s a more helpful way to view Lent. We receive this season as a gift of learning and growth. This season is a gift of grace which allows us to reflect on how we can more firmly and more fully centre our lives in God.
Listen again to the very first words in our Ash Wednesday worship. We enter the season of Lent with this prayer: “Almighty and everlasting God, you despise nothing you have made.”
The very first words we hear in Lent is that we are beloved. We are not alone. God who made us … holds us, and loves us now and eternally.
Only then do we hear these words, “Create and make in us new and contrite hearts …”
We have to get that order right. The foundation of our lives and of our faith is that we are God’s beloved. And then, as God’s precious people, we are able to enter into the discipline of Lent.
That’s the whole point of “giving something up for Lent”. It’s not just to give something up for the sake of giving something up. Rather, we give something up and make space for God in our lives. We give something up and make space for the work of grace to become effective in our lives. We give something up and make space for Spirit to work in us.
We give something up to clear the clutter, and then we can turn our focus more clearly on the work of grace in our lives. It’s the daily work of learning, of begin formed more clearly in the image of Christ.
I love the prayer written by 13th century bishop Richard of Chichester (you may remember it from Godspell): “Day by day, dear Lord, three things I pray: to see thee more clearly; to love thee more dearly; to follow thee more nearly.”
That’s the discipline of Lent which we enter today. That’s the gift of Lent which we receive toady. We take time … we make time … we are given time … to think about our relationship with God, with others, and with the world. We enter into a gifted season where we are called to devote ourselves in love to God, to each other, and to the world
We mark the gift of this season with the sign of ashes. We are the beloved people of God; we also know that “we are dust, and to dust we shall return.”
We are beloved, and we are mortal. We acknowledge our limitations. We are not immortal; we are not infallible; we are not divine. We are not in control.
Rather, we receive this life which is given to us as a mysterious, miraculous gift. Our lives are a miracle. We forget that so easily, and that’s why we need this gift of Lent.
Each moment brings with it the capacity for holiness and grace. In each day, we will find both beauty and pain. Life has an incredible, infinite capacity to touch us with hope and joy, and all of it comes to us as a gift.
So this dust, these ashes … they remind us that life is made holy because God is present. God holds us in all of life. In our mortality, in our limited selves, we are the beloved people of God.
Christian faith is intensely material that way. At its best, Christian faith doesn’t divide life into sacred and secular. All of life is holy. Both the spiritual and the material are shot through with holiness and grace.
Dirt reminds us of heaven. The people around us are a sign of God’s presence in our lives. We smudge our foreheads with ashes, and we wear it proudly as a sign of our lifelong commitment to live as the people of God. In ordinary bread and wine and water, Christ is present.
“Day by day, dear Lord, three things I pray: to see thee more clearly; to love thee more dearly; to follow thee more nearly.”
All of it … signs of grace.
Thanks be to God.
Rev. Dr. Yme Woensdregt
March 6, 2019 (Ash Wednesday)
Matthew 6: 1–6, 16–21
Joel 2: 1–2, 12–17
2 Corinthians 5: 20–6:10