Eric P. Lemonholm
March 9, 2011
Matt 6:1[-6, 16-21]; Joel 2:1-2, 12-14 [-17]; Isaiah 58:1-10 [11-12]; 2 Cor. 5:20b-6:2 [-10]
Today is the first day of the season of Lent.
Today is Ash Wednesday.
Sometimes, if we know a little history, if we know where we come from, it helps us understand who we are and where we are going.
This Ash Wednesday let me begin by walking you through a little history.[ii]
The season of Lent began as a 40-day period of preparation for Baptism in the early church.
In the early days of the church, Baptisms were often performed on the Saturday night before Easter, during the Easter Vigil.
The period from Ash Wednesday until then was a period of preparation and repentance for adults and children, before they were baptized on the Saturday between Good Friday and Easter Sunday.
Adults who were going to be baptized during the Easter Vigil would fast the entire period of Lent, except for Sundays, because Sundays are “always feasts celebrating the resurrection.”
- Just as Jesus fasted 40 days in the wilderness at the beginning of his ministry;
- Just as Moses stayed on Mount Sinai in God’s presence 40 days;
- Just as the Israelites wandered 40 years in the desert;
- And just as Elijah fasted on his way to the mountain of God;
- So candidates for Baptism fasted 40 days during Lent, and spent much of their time in prayer and learning about the Christian faith.
Lent for us is still a time of repentance, a time of turning away from sin and turning toward God in prayer, in reading the Bible, in fasting.
Today, Ash Wednesday, is a Day of Atonement.
It is a solemn day.
A day for repentance.
As the Manual on the Liturgy states, Ash Wednesday is a day to reflect “on the quality of our faith and life; its goal is participation in the Lenten discipline, which, by its focus on the mystery of redemption [through Christ], should strengthen us by bringing us anew to the gift of our Baptism.”
Ash Wednesday itself began as a day when hard core sinners were expelled from the church, temporarily excommunicated, placed under discipline for the 40 days of Lent—that is where our word ‘quarantine’ comes from—it means ‘40’—the 40 days that sinners were ‘quarantined’ from the church, until Easter.
Now, we’re not going to expel anyone from this place tonight. None of us are going to be quarantined from church during Lent.
If sinners had to be quarantined from church during Lent, none of us would be here!
But we do recognize the serious nature of Ash Wednesday and Lent.
Each of us will receive an ashen cross on our foreheads.
These ashes are made by burning palms, the palms we wave in joy on Palm Sunday.
Ashes are a rich symbol:[iii]
- “Ashes suggest judgment and God’s condemnation of sin.”
- Ashes remind us of our “frailty, our total dependence upon God for life.”
- We are reminded “of the words of the committal in the burial service, “…earth to earth, ashes to ashes, dust to dust.” Someday, “those words will be said over us.”
- Ashes are a symbol of repentance. When people in the Bible feel sorry for the bad things they have done, they wear sackcloth and ashes, put ashes on their heads, or sit in dust and ashes.
- But ashes also represent “cleansing and renewal.” In the past, ashes were “used as a cleansing agent in the absence of soap.”
- In a way, the ashen cross on our foreheads reminds us of the water of our Baptism. When we baptize a child, we also make the mark of the cross on her forehead and say, “You have been sealed by the Holy Spirit and marked with the cross of Christ forever.”
- The ashes remind us of that seal of the Holy Spirit and that mark of the cross of Christ that is branded on our souls forever.
We are dust, and to dust we shall return.
God spoke these words to Adam after he and Eve had disobeyed God and eaten of the forbidden fruit.
We are also disobedient. We are also sinners. We are also dust, and to dust we shall return.
But we have also been marked by the cross of Christ.
We are not our own. We belong to Jesus. We are forgiven.
Our sin is forgiven – even Mine and Yours!
The season of Lent is not only a solemn time of prayer, repentance, and fasting.
Lent is also a joyful time of renewal, of rebirth.
Does anyone remember what “Lent” means?
It comes from an old word for the lengthening of days in spring.
Lent means spring.
The season of Lent is “the holy springtime of the soul, a time for preparation, planting, and growth.”
During Lent, we awaken from winter slumber.
Our dormant trunks thaw out.
The sap of God’s Spirit of Life flows through our veins.
Our roots grow deep in the soil of God’s word.
Our branches stretch to the sky, sprout leaves and begin to bear fruit.
Lent reminds us that by God’s grace we are alive!
We have been given the gift of today.
The gift of now.
The gift of worship together in this place.
The gift of life together in Jesus.
The gift of a new day.
You are alive – so start living – today and every day.
[ii] Information derived from the Manual on the Liturgy, pp. 305-9.
[iii] Quotes are from the Manual on the Liturgy.