By Jerry Franzen NCC 2/22/12
Joel 2:12-18 2 Corinthians 5: 20-6:2 Matthew 6:1-6,16-18
What is Ash Wednesday and Lent all about?
Jesus talks about our not drawing attention to the good things we do;
about giving to the poor without drawing attention to what we do;
about praying without letting others see what we do;
about fasting without letting others see what we do.
Giving to the poor, praying, and fasting,
probably not the things we most like to do, but good things.
But what’s the sense in doing good things,
if you cannot get a little credit for doing these good things?
The prophet Joel brings us God’s words and they include:
“fasting”, “weeping” and “mourning”
“rend your hearts not your garments” – tear your hearts.
That sounds really painful.
“Blow the trumpet to proclaim a fast.”
Usually we would blow the trumpet to celebrate a happy occasion,
maybe a special dinner not to stop eating or to just eat less.
And this was not for just a few people;
get everybody together for the fast,
the elders, the children, the infants,
even bridegrooms and brides,
who should be celebrating their weddings.
Joel goes on - Let the priests cry out to the Lord,
to beg the Lord to let his presence be known.
So, we need to beg the Lord to let his presence known?
With these images from Sacred Scripture to begin the Lenten season,
it’s no wonder that Lent is such a downer for many people.
On top of this, we begin the season by putting dirt on our foreheads.
Dirt that says, “Hey! Look at me, I’m a sinner.”
A lot of negatives!
And yet I’m here to tell you that this is my favorite time of the year,
even better than Christmas.
You may be thinking, “This guy is really strange.”
Most of you know that already,
after all I teach Chemistry and I really like the subject.
Let’s talk about the ashes.
In the very early Church, only adults were baptized.
They were sinners, and all of their sins were “washed away”
by their baptism.
Some thought that the newly baptized would be such good Christians
that they would not sin again, not ever.
Ha! When the new Christians did commit serious sin,
the bishops realized that something had to be done.
So the sinners were brought to the bishops and they confessed their sins,
originally in public to the community.
Can you imagine your standing up in public
and confessing all of your sins?
After the confession, the bishop assigned each of the sinners a penance.
It was a public penance which began about 40 days before Easter.
It often involved the person wearing ragged clothes
and having dirt on his or her face.
This set them apart from the community, identified them as sinners
and helped them to better recognize
and deal with their own sinfulness.
After they had endured their penance,
they were returned to full status in the community by the bishop
at the Easter Vigil on Holy Saturday.
This was the beginning of our current sacrament of Penance.
And the period of penance, 40 days,
just happens to correspond to our season of Lent.
That period of penance and our Lent both point to Easter;
Lent is all about Easter.
And Yes, our ashes do remind us of the dirt on the face of the penitents.
So, you still might ask, “Why is this your favorite time of the year?”
Fasting, praying, giving away money, sin, penance, confession-
These do not sound like anybody’s favorite things to do.
It’s because, for me, and for all of us, Lent is all about Easter.
When I was in the sixth grade,
the teacher split the class down the middle
and told us that we would have a debate.
One side would defend the premise
that Christmas is the greatest feast in the Church.
The other side would defend the premise
that Easter is the greatest feast in the Church.
I was on the Easter side, and as far as I am concerned,
we won the debate.
For me, Easter has always been the greater feast.
And Lent is all about Easter.
If there would have been no Easter, there would be no Lent.
Lent is all about Jesus’ resurrection,
our resurrection, our salvation.
We don’t have ashes rubbed all over our faces;
They are applied to our foreheads in a special way,
in the sign of the cross.
They are applied to us as a sign of our salvation in the cross.
Words are said with the application of the ashes.
One form is:
“Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return”
Most people equate the word “dust” with the ashes, just dirt.
“Remember you are nothing but dirt
and your dead body will return to the dirt.”
Many prefer the alternate form:
“Repent and believe in the Gospel.”
However, remember in the second creation story
in the second chapter of Genesis
that man was made from the clay of the ground.
That clay would have been dust in the dry region of the Middle East.
From the first creation story in the first chapter of Genisis
we know that man was made in the image and likeness of God.
Could “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return”
“Remember you were made from dust in the image and likeness of God,
and you will return to that image and likeness of God
when you are victorous over your sinfulness.”
Yes the ashes do represent our sinfuless, the bad news,
but the cross is the cross of our salvation, our Easter,
our resurrection from sin – the VERY GOOD NEWS.
You see Lent is all about Easter.
There is a similar sentiment of our salvation in the alternate sentence:
“Repent and believe in the Gospel.”
Lent is my favorite season of the liturgical year.
It is a time when we are called to return to the Lord,
when I know that the Lord is calling me back.
We are all sinners;
we have each distanced ourselves somewhat from God.
But that is just the beginning.
Lent doesn’t end in sin.
Lent can be viewed in a much more positive manner.
It is a time for us to follow the urgings of the prophet Joel:
“Return to the Lord your God.”
Joel goes on in one of my favorites lines in the Bible,
one of the most positive verses in the Bible:
“For gracious and merciful is (the Lord),
slow to anger, rich in kindness,
and relenting in punishment.”
This is why Lent is my favorite time of the year,
because it reminds me that no matter what we have done,
God is not harsh with us, he treats us with grace,
He is ready with mercy that is without end,
He can deal with our many, many sins and not get very angry,
He is kind and helpful in our return to Him,
And he removes any punishment
as soon as we ask for forgiveness.
That is all such Good News and it is right here at the beginning of Lent.
God sent his Son into the world for our salvation.
St. Paul put it this way in the second reading;
‘For our sake he made him to be sin,
who did not know sin
so that we might become the righteousness
of God in him.”
For our sake, God sent his Son, who was not a sinner,
to die for us, to take the punishment for us,
so that we might become what God wants us to be,
Can there be a better god than that?
Yes, Lent is the time for us to consider our sinfulness,
but it does not end there.
It is also the time for us to better understand our God,
to immerse ourselves in the Good News of salvation,
to concentrate on the ways back to the Lord.
Yes, Lent is all about Easter and it is my favorite season of the year.