Today, on this Ash Wednesday,
you and I begin a forty day trek
through the wilderness.
On this day,
you and I begin a season
of fasting and prayer,
of penitence and devotion . . .
a chance to clamor after the God
who spun the universe into being
and gave us our very breath.
On this day,
you and I discern between
those things that are most important
and those things that are not,
and we embrace our mortality
even as we cling to the hope of eternity.
On this day,
you and I begin the season of Lent,
and for the next forty days
we walk in lockstep with Jesus
all the way to Jerusalem,
all the way to the cross.
But be advised:
as vivid and rewarding as this season is,
it is also fraught with paradox and misunderstanding.
Lent is a time in which it is alarmingly easy
to get bogged down in the details,
to go only as deep as the surface of the symbols,
and to miss the point entirely.
So on this day,
as we begin our Lenten journey,
I wish to offer you
three simple warnings.
Consider them caveats,
food for thought as you try to make this time
as holy, rich, and fulfilling
as it can and should be.
The first is a warning about impressing.
The second is a warning about improving.
And the third is a warning about imposing.
The first warning is the easy one.
It only takes one look at today’s lessons
to realize that honest spirituality
should never be about impressing others . . .
not even God.
In today’s Gospel reading,
Jesus openly mocks those who go out
and make a big show of their spirituality. . .
those who pray loud prayers
and are always telling others
how much they put in the collection plate.
Jesus looks at them and says,
“You know what? Nobody cares.
If you really love God,” he says,
“then pursue him in the secret
and quiet places of your life
rather than giving progress reports
everywhere you go.”
I once knew a feisty Episcopal nun who said,
“There’s a reason why Jesus says
to go in your room and lock the door
when it’s time to pray.
Prayer is holy.
Prayer is intimate.
Prayer is love.
You go in your room
and your lock your door
because that’s what lovers do
when it’s time to make love.
Your time with God
is intimate and precious.
Act like it.” 1
Likewise, throughout the Old Testament,
God’s people can’t figure out for the life of them
why God isn’t bowled over by their worship.
“Yeah, you worship really well.
You’ve got your prayer book memorized,
and you never miss a day of temple.
But that does not impress me.
“I want your heart,” God says,
“not your empty devotion.”
So for us during Lent,
as we decide how we’ll spend the next forty days—
whether taking up some special practice
or laying aside a particular vice—
it’s important to remember
that the point is not impressing others . . .
not even God.
God does not care
whether you can go forty days
without potato chips.
God cares whether you live in love
and whether he has your whole heart.
The second warning
is a warning against
trying to improve yourself.
Perhaps that sounds counterintuitive,
but here’s what I mean.
There are some people who look at Lent
as a sort of self-help season.
These are the kinds of folks who view Lent
as a chance to give up junk food
or add the discipline of exercise
with the end goal of getting in shape
and fitting back into their favorite dress by Easter.
Hopefully it’s easy to see
how these folks are missing the point,
but in the same vein,
so too are the ones who view Lent
as a time for them
to make themselves
For your Lenten discipline,
maybe you’ll commit to reading the Bible more,
or attending Church more,
or taking part in special spiritual activities,
but don’t do these things for shallow reasons.
The end goal of Lent isn’t
for you to make yourself
a better Christian.
The end goal is to put yourself in God’s hands . . .
and the becoming-a-better-Christian part
takes care of itself.
I recently heard another priest say that on Ash Wednesday
he encourages those in his congregation
to take on Lenten disciplines so huge, so colossal
that they can’t help but to fail miserably
by the time Lent is all over.
Only then can they realize
their need for the cross on Good Friday
and the resurrection on Easter.
Only then can they understand
their dependence not on themselves,
but on God alone. 2
In an age when bookstore shelves
are lined with self-help books
on how you can make yourself
happier, healthier, wealthier . . .
make yourself a better parent,
make yourself a better lover,
and even make yourself a better Christian,
Lent is here to remind us
that we are solely dependent upon God for all things,
including even our ability to love him more.
The last warning is a warning about imposing.
Specifically, it is a warning
that you and I serve an imposing God . . .
a God who delights in interrupting us
and reordering all our plans
just when we think we have it all figured out.
You and I serve a God
who longs to disturb us when we are complacent,
to disrupt us when we are settled,
who demands that our lives not be too comfortable
because when they are,
we too easily believe
that we got ourselves there.
So if you start down these next forty days
and simply make your Lent about
giving up Coca-Cola and fried chicken,
that’s fine, but the question still remains,
“How comfortable are you?”
If all you do is give up some luxuries
without spending time face to face with God,
have you really allowed God to disrupt your life,
to shake you up,
to draw you close,
and to make you new?
Or are you just playing games
with Coca-Cola and trans-fats?
This Lent, God wishes to interrupt you
and to find a new place in your life.
I dare you to let him.
Speaking of “imposing,”
in a few minutes we will to move
to that part of today’s service
wherein you are invited
to have the sign of the cross
made on your head in ashes.
There is nothing magical
or even sacramental
about this action;
it is simply a physical reminder
of your own mortality,
a sign that—as I say in the blessing every week—
“life is short,
and we do not have much time
to gladden the hearts of those
who travel the way with us.”
Our prayer book calls this action
“the imposition of ashes,”
which is completely appropriate
given how “imposing” it is
to have God remind you
that this short life of yours
is ultimately in his hands.
But those ashes on your head
are only part of the story.
Another priest commented recently
that he tells his congregation on Ash Wednesday
that the cycle is not complete
until they go home that night,
pour the water onto a cloth,
and wash the ashes from their face.
“When they do that,” he says,
“I remind them to remember their baptism.”
So tonight as the ashes are imposed,
yes, be reminded of the truth that you are mortal
and that there will come a day when your body
will return once again to the earth.
But likewise, when you go home
and wash the ashes from your face,
be reminded, too, that by virtue of your baptism
and the saving grace of our Lord Jesus Christ,
you belong entirely to God,
and death is not the end of the story.
I wish you a blessed Ash Wednesday
and a most holy Lent.
For God’s sake,
make the most of it.
Lay the impressing and the improving aside,
allow God to impose on your life,
that you are dust. . .
God’s dust . . .
and he holds you in the hollow of his hand.
1 Sister Elaina, OSH. Paraphrased from memory of a talk given c. 2005.
2 Smith, Jacob. “Ash Wednesday (All Years).” Same Old Song, Mockingbird Ministries, 2 March 2019, https://thesameoldsong.fireside.fm/35. Paraphrased.
3 Zimmerman, Aaron. “Ash Wednesday (All Years).” Same Old Song, Mockingbird Ministries, 2 March 2019, https://thesameoldsong.fireside.fm/35. Paraphrased.