Every day during Lent, members of Oconee Street UMC will write a Lenten devotional and share with the congregation.
March 5, 2014: Ash Wednesday
by The Rev. Lisa Caine
Psalm 51:1-2, 10
Have mercy on me, O God, according to your steadfast love; according to your abundant mercy blot out my transgressions. Wash me thoroughly from my iniquity, and cleanse me from my sin. . . . Create in me a clean heart, O God, and renew a right spirit within me.
Today is Ash Wednesday, the first day of Lent. Sometime during the day many Christians will go to church to have a cross of ashes placed on their foreheads. Our service for the imposition of ashes will begin at 6;15 this evening. During the service each of us will have a smudge of ashes placed on our foreheads. Then words are spoken, “Repent, and believe in the gospel.” Or, “Remember you are dust and to dust you will return.”
Death and repentance are primary themes of Lent, as we are asked to face honestly two truths about ourselves: we are mortal and we are imperfect. Those two truths are not very popular in our culture today. We like to think we’ll live forever, and we are much more adept at pointing out the imperfections in others than we are in realizing that a few flaws actually reside in us. Sometimes in church — hopefully not ours! Call me out, if you hear it! — we may hear messages that verge on triumphalism and make us believe the power of positive thinking will enable us to rise definitely above the flawed, messiness of life and maybe even the certainty of death. Before we know it, we can convince ourselves that whatever the gospel may be about, it couldn’t possibly be about changing directions or about dying.
And so every year, we have Ash Wednesday to help us get back on track, to remember our mortality and our proper place in the scheme of things, to remember that God is God and we are not, and to begin our preparation to share in the death and resurrection of Christ. Our culture will encourage us to forget about the repenting and dying parts, and focus on the rising, to think about Easter eggs, chocolate bunnies, and jelly beans, spring break and family gatherings. But for our faith to be authentic, there must be a true repentance and a true dying before there can be a true rising with Christ to new life in God.
Paul writes, “I have been crucified with Christ,” not “I’m trying to follow him when I can.” He says, “It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me,” not “I imitate him as best I can whenever it’s convenient and not too dangerous or embarrassing.” Lent is the time of year when we come face to face with the dilemma of commitment, the dilemma of admitting our flaws, sins, and imperfections, the dilemma of surrendering our sense of independence and control, our sense of power and immortality to the supremacy of God in Christ. It is time to come face to face with repentance and dying and to consider what Jesus meant when he said that to gain life we first have to lose it. As is often the case with the gospel, what sounds like bad news at first turns out, in the end, to be good news. Come tonight and hear the good news: “Repent and believe in the gospel!” And, “Remember you are dust and to dust you will return.”
Prayer: Gracious God, when we have lost our way, bring us back. When we are going in the wrong direction, turn us around. Set us on the right path towards you, and walk with us through the valley of the shadow of death so that we fear no evil but trust completely in your steadfast love. Amen.