Lent is about getting honest: honest with God, honest with ourselves, honest with the community of faith, about who we really are before God. Perhaps you’ve heard the old one-liner about a very unemotional German farmer who said, “I love my wife so much I nearly told her so once.”
We need to be able to speak honestly – As Isaiah does, as Jesus does, not for the purpose of making us feel bad about who we are as human beings, but in order to establish, maintain, repair and transform our relationship with God and our relationship with one another, indeed the entire creation. The purpose of the disciplines of fasting, praying and almsgiving are gifts to us from God to do just that.
First we must be honest about who we are. To do so we must start with our baptism, and in doing so we are reminded that the entire season of Lent originated in the Church as a time of preparation for Easter baptism. We hear again our baptismal reality from the holy mount of Transfiguration on the last Sunday After the Epiphany a few days ago when the welcome words from Jesus’ baptism are echoed and repeated, “This is my Son, the Beloved.” This is the reality for us all as daughters and sons of God. As it is spoken to Jesus it is spoken to us. You are God’s beloved. If you hear nothing else, go into Lent with that truth close to your heart.
Our honesty must start there – in Christ as God’s beloved. So even as we are reminded today that we are dust, that is, mortal and broken and not yet fully whole, but remember also that we are redeemed dust, totally loved and embraced by the God of all creation. Hopefully this then prepares us to hear the difficult yet honest words from Jesus, that we sometimes misuse our giftedness, the gifts of prayer, fasting and almsgiving, in order to be noticed, even thanked by someone. In other words, doing the right things for the wrong reasons.
Or hear the bold honesty from Isaiah, not holding back but shouting out and declaring that Jacob’s fast was not bringing about the desired result. Our life as a people of faith is to participate in the loosing of the bonds of injustice, undoing the thongs of the burdensome yoke, letting the oppressed go free, sharing one’s bread with the hungry and homeless, bringing the poor into our house and covering the naked. It’s why we pray “thy Kingdom come.” If we do not see this happening, Isaiah is telling us our faith is a sham, a false representation of the purpose of life in God.
So we find that we are dust, mortal and finite on this earth, yet we are beloved, made in the image of God, and united to Christ in our baptism. It has been said that the glory of God is a human being fully alive! At the same time we are broken and in need of love, healing and transformation as we are always needing to be made new. We are, as Martin Luther said, “simul justus et picatur,” at the same time a saint and a sinner. Or to hear it a different way from John Dominic Crossan: “heaven is in great shape; earth is where the problems are.”
So if we are honest, we must admit, even confess, that we have a problem as a human race that Ash Wednesday is calling upon us to address. We are out of proper relationship with one another, with God and the creation itself. Unfortunately it doesn’t take much to look around our country and world and see the evidence. Contrary to the manner in which Lent has too often been overly individualized in personal piety, Isaiah and the prophets show us a way of repentance, walking a new way, not merely as an act of individual piety, but an action of the entire community as we make ourselves available to the world. The gifts of prayer, almsgiving and fasting are not only good Lenten piety, they are ways to move into the heart’s journey of peace and being awake to addressing the issues of humanity.
Isaiah and Jesus are calling us to see once again why we are here as a faith community. Only when our piety is about God’s justice for the world will our light break forth like the dawn and healing spring up quickly. Then we shall call and the Lord will answer. If we offer our food to the hungry and satisfy the needs of the afflicted, then our light will rise in darkness and the gloom be like the noonday. That is a church people want to be a part of! It has integrity. It is honest.
So if we dare to enter into the way to which Ash Wednesday calls us, we find that the call to return to prayer, almsgiving and fasting is for our sake, yes, but even more for the sake of the world. It calls us once again to do the work we are given to do, knowing who we are and whom God calls us to be.