Homily delivered to the English Church in Villars, Switzerland.
14 & 18 February 2018. Ash Wednesday & First Sunday of Lent.
Rend your hearts and not your clothing. These are the words read from the prophet Joel in the Church at the beginning of Lent earlier this week, Ash Wednesday. Written to the people of ancient Israel, this prophetic call to repentance still today presents for us an interesting meditation, a realisation and recognition of all that is tightly bound up with this season: ash and fasting, repentance and the echoes of judgment.
These are deep themes to contemplate. And at first glance they could seem quite dark, depressing even. The passage we read from Joel is less than cheery. And this is unfortunately often the reputation the church has gathered in today’s world. I read an article in the New York Times presenting the conundrum of having to have Ash Wednesday and Valentine’s Day on the same day. Could Christians really celebrate both?
We are regarded often not as a people of celebration, but as a people obsessed with ourselves: our eternal destination, our piety, our focus on death and ash. Our rending of clothing, as Joel describes.
Lent, however, should be for us by contrast our opportunity as a community and as a Church to challenge that notion projected onto us by the world. We mark ourselves with ash today, not because we are obsessed with our mortality and our death. This is not a mark of morbidity or depression. It is not an indicator of only sadness.
This week we enter into a new day, a new season, a calling back to the very beginning. We use ash on Ash Wednesday because Lent brings us back to the very beginning. The beginning of creation. The beginning of yes, our sin, but also our journey toward redemption, our capacity for forgiveness.
At the beginning of this season, the Eastern Orthodox Church sings: “The lenten spring shines forth, the flower of repentance! Let us cleanse ourselves from all evil, crying out to the Giver of Light: ‘Glory to You, O Lover of man!”
Lent, as a word, means springtime. It is an ancient term for that time of year when winter first begins to give way. We may not yet feel this reality in the Alps, but already, our darkest days have passed. The sun lingers in the sky just a bit longer even if we still feel the cold breath of winter wrapped about us.
The season of Lent is one of repentance. Ash is a symbol of that repentance. However, this does not mean it is a season of darkness. True humility does not need the shadow. True repentance does not dwell in the night. To come face to face with our humanity, with the ashes upon our brow is an entirely different sort of sadness, a bright sadness. In recognising our sin and need for repentance we glimpse the Eternal. In the fresh start of repentance we find renewal.
Yes, at the moment our church feels quite dark, and as this season progresses and we continue to remember Christ’s Passion, it is fair to say that this is indeed a somber time of year. But just as the flower of Lent pushes up from the dust and ash of the earth, so we rise together with it in the great hope of what this season brings, and where we are going.
Rend your hearts and not your clothing. We return to these words of Joel. Repentance and forgiveness is a movement of the heart. Our steps toward these spiritual realities must be worked out in our souls, not just our actions or religious piety. In this passage God was upset with a people who did what they needed on the outside to “get” God’s forgiveness, but in reality their hearts were still hardened both against him and one other. This isn’t true repentance. It is not truly turning around and examining ourselves for who we are.
This Lent, for all of us, should be a starting point. It is the springtime of our spiritual lives, in which we look forward with anticipation and joy to the victory of a God who could not be held down by the same ash that marks our forehead. Christ is the God whose flower bloomed through the dirt of our humanity, giving us too the chance to push through the winter frost into spring.
This journey through Lent looks different for each of us. For some, it may be learning to meet God for the very first time, and yet for others the whole idea of any God at all may still be a distant and silly concept. That’s okay. This is where we start. Maybe, however, the thought of a God isn’t the stumbling block, maybe it’s your own heart. Your own fears and lingering hatred toward someone who has wronged you. That’s okay. This is where we start. Maybe for whatever reason your heart really does need to be broken and put together again: from a past pain or a present battle. That’s okay. This is where we start.
In silene. In prayer. In forgiveness.
No matter where we come from, Lent begins with this forgiveness. In the Orthodox Church they don’t have Ash Wednesday, rather, the Sunday on which Lent begins is known as “Forgiveness Sunday” because it is on this day that everyone in the church is expected to both extend and receive forgiveness. The church actually creates space and time, an official ritual, by which those gathered go around to give and receive this forgiveness. This rending of the heart. In this way then, one can only enter into the effort of Lent by responding to the most very basic of all Christian realities: forgive one another as you have been forgiven.
So no matter where you think you are in your life, however close or however far from God, we all begin in the same way. In forgiveness. We have all contributed in someway to the brokenness of this world, and so we are given the chance to also heal it. Let forgiveness be your first act of penance in the season of Lent. Don’t worry about the chocolate, the sweets, the food or whatever else we may feel compelled to give up. Where we truly begin is in the rending of our hearts, because when we really do that: when we break ourselves open in search of forgiveness, then the path will become clear to us.
As we walk along this path of fasting, of penance, I always feel compelled to issue a reminder: no matter what type of fast we have taken on, each Sunday is a day of feasting. A day in which we break our fasts and celebrate the blooming of that spring flower, the resurrection of our Christ. It reminds us that any of these rituals are designed not to rend our clothing, but our hearts. Because notice, even in this feasting, even in our celebration of resurrection, partaking of the Lord’s Supper, of Eucharist, we always begin in the same way as we begin each Lent. We seek forgiveness. For ourselves. For our neighbour.
For the which we have done and for that which we have left undone.
This should be the pattern of our life. In our fasting and in our feasting. In our going out and our coming in. As we search for God and as we run from Him. All the pains and all the joys of our present life should begin with the same spiritual discipline: forgive one another as you have been forgiven.
In our prayers throughout this season we will often repeat the ancient, beautiful and simple prayer of the Church, “Lord have mercy.” In our minds, it is easy for this prayer to be the stopping of something negative: Lord, don’t crush us. Lord, let us off the hook. And while we do ask for mercy, the prayer is larger than this judicial meaning. The term “mercy” as drawn from the Hebrew and interpreted in the Church can be translated in other ways: steadfast love, tenderness, loving kindness, or very simply, love. In this way the prayer becomes an affirmation of God’s identity, of his goodness to us. A prayer that God be himself to us. To be merciful, not as an antonym of justice, but as an expression of his goodness, kindness, generosity and love.
Lent is the time of year when we fling open the shutters of our soul, when we set forth on the journey to real life. When we break forth through the earth like the flower. To the land of the living. And in this journey toward the great light of the Paschal feast, we cry: “Lord have mercy, Lord be to us as you are, Lord act to us as you do, Lord we want you to be with us and to do with us as you yourself are and actually do” (Thomas Hopko, The Lenten Spring). What great hope we have in us when this is our cry. Begin your Lenten journey, then, where you are, and may God bless it and keep it, and may it bring the deep, beautiful joy of springtime.