St Paul's Cathedral, Springfield
Ash Wednesday is a good time to get a few things straight. First, what are we here for, anyway? It’s not like most of us don’t have other things we would ordinarily be doing at this time on a Wednesday. Why did we break our routines and come to church?
To answer such questions, we need to look away from them first. We need to look beyond Ash Wednesday, beyond Lent, and look at Holy Week and Easter. Any view of Lent that doesn’t see Holy Week and Easter as the end point, as the direction toward which all our activities are ordered, does not see Lent clearly. And then we need to look behind the actual annual observance of Holy Week and Easter, and see the underlying realities that energize their observance.
Those underlying realities can be summarized in four one-syllable words: We sin—God saves. Or, to expand on that just a little: We all have a powerful tendency to rebel against the authority of our Creator, which leads naturally to an eternity of desolation and the ultimate destruction of our very humanity. But our Creator has a powerful tendency to love us and be in a friendly relationship with us, which leads naturally to forgiveness, reconciliation, and eternal joy in His presence. God took decisive action toward that more desirable alternative when he entered human history as the man named Jesus. As Jesus died and rose from the dead, he laid the foundation for our liberation from the power of sin and death. That dying and rising, then, is an event worth celebrating with great care and great solemnity.
Part of celebrating, of course, is preparing. You can’t have a party without making arrangements for the food, inviting the guests, and cleaning house. That’s where Lent comes in. It’s an opportunity to prepare for the solemn observances of the last three days of March, as they fall this year, and the first day of April—observances that are physically demanding, emotionally demanding, and spiritually demanding.
And a necessary part of preparing to remember the dying and rising of Christ is to take inventory of our own unique contribution to the need for him to come among us in the first place. Without our sinfulness, there would have been no need for the Incarnation, the Crucifixion, and the Resurrection. You and I put him on the cross,
as surely as if we were the Roman soldier applying hammer to nail. We each have a very personal stake in what went on there, because Jesus doesn’t just save “mankind” in the abstract, he saves your individual sinful human soul, and mine.
Now, in order for that salvation to happen, we need to cooperate with God. He makes all the arrangements, performs the surgery, and pays the bill Himself. But we still need to present ourselves at the appointed place and time, sign the consent forms, and lie down on the gurney. Part of the required cooperation is for us to be truthful, and acknowledge the specific ways we have fallen short of the mark in our calling to glorify God in all that we say, do, and think.
That’s what Ash Wednesday is about. Ash Wednesday gives us an opportunity to take a good look at ourselves, individually and corporately, lay it all out on the table,
own up to it, and take responsibility. The surgery can’t begin until we agree with the physician about where the problems are and authorize Him to start wielding a scalpel.
So that’s our work tonight, and for the coming weeks of Lent. It’s inventory season.
Celebration of the paschal mystery in Holy Week and Easter must be preceded by repentance. And repentance must be preceded by confession. And confession must be preceded by self-examination. That’s the front end of the process. All the outward Lenten disciplines you can think of will be of little or no avail unless they help along the process of self-examination and confession and repentance, which will all lead, in due time, to celebration.
As your Chief Pastor, please know that I stand ready to assist you personally with this important work. You only need ask. I’m sure I speak as well for Father Roderick, whose arrival we still await, and Father Franklin too. May we be diligent in sowing the seeds during Lent that will yield an abundant harvest on Easter.