Imposing ashes on the foreheads of a community slowly emerging from the Covid-19 pandemic didn’t seem redundant, exactly, but it certainly felt poignant. Preparing for that moment, I recalled two classic touchstones in Christian faith that seemed suddenly more vibrant and fresh than they had for years.
First, we are sinners. I know that sounds terribly old-fashioned, but it’s also true. We fail regularly to live the kind of abundant life Creator God intends; we too often prevent others from flourishing because of the way we live.
We do not always act justly, we have trouble loving mercy, we forget to walk humbly with God, to quote the prophet Micah’s summary of what God asks of us (Micah 6:8).
A second great theme on Ash Wednesday is of course our mortality. We are finite creatures and we will one day die—each of us, no exceptions, all of us returning to the earth from which we came.
Connecting these two themes seems especially urgent given the state of, well, everything. We could begin with this: as mortal creatures, time is of the essence. We simply don’t have time for small visions, or petty resentments, or the refusals of shared flourishing born from bitterness. In the shortness of time, sin is whatever keeps us from thriving; or more simply, we just don’t have time for bullshit anymore, and likely never did.
The time is now—not next year, not next month, not even tomorrow, but right now is the time to remember or perhaps realize for the very first time that God takes great delight in every single thing God has made.
There is absolutely nothing about God’s creation, not one creature of any kind, not one human being, that God does not love madly and wildly. The opening collect for the Ash Wednesday liturgy makes this clear and it’s one of my favorites in The Book of Common Prayer: “Almighty and everlasting God, you hate nothing you have made…”
For some people, that claim is life-changing; for far too many, it’s life-saving; and for all of us, it’s mission-critical because time is short.
Lent is a time to clear out the toxic clutter, to remove whatever prevents me from seeing myself as a cherished creature of God.
Lent is a time to stop whatever I might be doing that prevents others from seeing themselves as cherished creatures of God.
Lent is a time to understand more deeply that our way of life as modern Western people is damaging and destroying this cherished creation of God called Earth—and time is short.
In my little parish yesterday we heard Matthew’s Jesus (6:1-6, 16-21) being just as plain about this as he could be: don’t waste your time on empty religious gestures; don’t bother being pious for piety’s sake—it’s worthless and pointless.
Pray instead for a change of heart.
Pray instead for a change of life.
Pray instead—as we heard the prophet Isaiah urge (58:1-12)—pray instead in ways that loosen the bonds of injustice and that let the oppressed go free and that provide bread for the hungry and housing for the poor—that’s true religion.
Pray instead, Isaiah says, so that you yourself become light in another’s darkness, water for another’s desert, a builder of dwellings laid waste and repairers of the breach for many generations—that’s the only religion that really matters.
Yes, we are sinners and time is short. But we can make good from the time we have if we repent of our sins and embrace the Gospel, which is nothing less than the abundant life God intends for all.
Don’t waste your time on anything else.