These happy greetings are appropriate for most holidays and special occasions.
“Happy Ash Wednesday!” “Happy Lent!”
That just doesn’t sound right, does it? Ash Wednesday, and the Lenten season we begin today, are not thought of as happy times. In fact, quite the opposite. Mardi Gras takes place right before Lent, as if a special time is needed to wring out all the happiness before the suffering of Lent begins.
It’s true – Lent is not meant to be a time of exuberant celebration. It’s a season for quiet introspection – for looking inward to see where we fall short. That’s certainly no fun.
Lent is a time for honesty – a time for reality. You know those pictures of yourself that make you wince because “I really don’t look like that, do I?” That’s the soul-picture we get when we take an honest look inward.
Being honest with ourselves can be painful. Especially when the standards we use are unattainable . . . as they are during Lent. During this season we are encouraged to hold up the Ten Commandments against our words, deeds – and this one is especially humbling – even our thoughts.
We’ll find that we break all ten of the Commandments. Before you protest, remember that Jesus said if we get angry at someone we’ve broken the commandment about murdering, and he holds us to a similarly high standard for our thoughts when it comes to the sixth commandment.
If we don’t come away from our Ten Commandments checkup feeling miserable enough about ourselves, there is the other standard we are called to hold up against ourselves – the perfection of Jesus Christ.
That’s worse than comparing our singing voices to a great opera singer or our basketball talents to LaBron James. We will inevitably fall short. We will be found wanting.
“All have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God.” All means all. ALL of us have fallen – and keep falling – short of God’s glory.
It is during Lent that we are invited to get in touch with what that really means – what it means that we have let God down over and over again.
“Happy Lent” indeed.
It reminds me of when I was growing up and I would be mean to my younger sister. My mom would send me to my room – sometimes to sit in a hard chair in the very middle of the room away from any distractions. “You sit there and think about what you’ve done,” she would say.
Needless to say, that was the last thing I would think about. “How much longer” was about as deep as I got.
Maybe that’s why I ended up in that room and on that chair over and over.
Lent gives us 40 days to think about what we’ve done. Are we going to plod through this season asking, “How much longer?” “How many days to Easter?” Or are we going to make good use of it?
We began worship this evening with the 51st Psalm. It reminds us that we are hopeless when it comes to being sinners – “Indeed I was born guilty, a sinner when my mother conceived me.” We never had a chance. We are, in the words of the old George Thorogood song, “Bad to the Bone.” Actually, we are worse: we are bad to the SOUL.
After that dose of hard reality from the 51st Psalm, we had ashes placed on our foreheads that remind us of the inevitable result of our sinfulness. “Remember, you are dust and to dust you shall return.” The inevitable result of sin is DEATH. We are DYING; that’s what the ashes on our foreheads proclaim.
Our sin and our sinfulness are killing us.
By the way, did I wish you a happy Ash Wednesday?
BUT . . . when I smeared those ashes on your forehead this evening I did my best to leave them there in the shape of a cross. Because Lent is not just a time of introspection, a time of looking inward . . . it is a time of looking at the CROSS.
No, that’s not strong enough. If we get real with ourselves about our spiritual condition, and we let it sink in that we’re literally dying of sin, then we won’t just look at the cross. We won’t just stand under the cross. No, in the words of the hymn we sang earlier (Rock of Ages) we’ll CLING to the cross. It’s our only hope.
The ashes in the shape of the cross proclaim that there is something more powerful than death, something that defeated death and sin and Satan once and for all. The cross.
The ashy cross on our foreheads retraces another cross smeared on our foreheads by the thumb of a pastor. That other cross was drawn in oil, not ash, and it was made there on your forehead after you were baptized into the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. When the pastor made that Cross, he called you a child of God and said that you had been “sealed by the Holy Spirit and marked with the Cross of Christ FOREVER.”
We speak of Lent as a journey to the cross. But really we are on a journey from cross to cross to cross – from the cross in our baptism to the cross of ash to the Cross of Jesus Christ that we will remember on Good Friday. It is a journey that we make every year, and Ash Wednesday is the way-station on that journey. Ash Wednesday is a day of preparation, a day to look at what really and finally matters.
What does really and finally matter? The cross, and our relationship with the Savior who submitted to death on that Cross.
Lent is a time to restore that relationship to its rightful place in our lives. There are disciplines Christians have practiced for 100’s of years that help us do that, especially prayer, fasting, and acts of service.
But no matter what WE do to enhance our experience of Lent, the good news of this season is the same Good News we proclaim the rest of the year – that our hope is not in what we do, but in what Jesus already did!
So, I guess if the day Jesus died on the Cross can be called “Good Friday,” we can say, “Happy Lent.”
But the greeting I prefer is “Have a blessed Lent,” because it centers not on a fleeting emotion but rather on blessing, which can only come from God. And one of the great blessings of Lent is this opportunity to take that honest look at ourselves and realize how sinful we are.
You might wonder, “And how is that a blessing?” Because it is only then that we can even begin to appreciate God’s grace, to understand that we really don’t deserve the forgiveness and salvation poured out in Christ’s blood on the Cross, but that God offers them anyway for the most basic of reasons – just because God loves YOU.
No matter who you are, no matter what you have done.
Have a blessed Lent.
(Based on a homily preached at Christ Evangelical Lutheran Church of Millersville on Ash Wednesday 2013.)