Ash Wednesday

II Corinthians 5:20b-6:10
Charles Guth
February 10, 2016
Ash Wednesday

Today we begin to think about Easter. The resurrection of our Lord and Savior is the highlight of the Church’s year, and from very early on Christians have sought to prepare themselves for the occasion. The apostles tell us that in Christ’s cross our sins were redeemed and in his resurrection death was defeated. So during Lent we are especially mindful of our weakness as creatures and of our need to repent from sin. These themes are especially prominent on Ash Wednesday. So it’s easy to see why Paul’s Second Letter to the Corinthians is associated with this day. Joy in suffering, strength in weakness, the sufficiency of Christ—nowhere else does Paul write so movingly about these themes; at no other time is it so fitting to reflect on these than on Ash Wednesday.

And yet, I have my reservations about Ash Wednesday. I don’t object to remembering that we are mortal—that we are from dust, as Scripture and tradition puts it. Far from it. We live in a culture which worships youth and where hospitals euphemistically refer to dead patients as “expired”—as if they were packages of yogurt rather than human beings. By contrast, realistic and reverent acknowledgement of our frailty can be, well, live-giving. There is freedom in recognizing that we are creatures, not the creator. And how much more important is it for Christians to repent humbly before our God? Paul offers us strong words: “We entreat you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God … [do not] accept the grace of God in vain.” We might imagine Paul saying those words in a busy market to crowds of unbelieving gentiles, but no. Be reconciled to God! To his fellow Christians he said that. Do not accept the grace of God in vain. To Christians Paul writes these words. Far be it from us, then, not to heed them. But what can accepting God’s grace yet doing so in vain mean other than accepting grace without seeking transformed life? But transformation starts with repentance. So far so good for Ash Wednesday.

And yet—and yet I worry about it. Not because I think remembering our mortality or repenting are bad in themselves. No, I worry because it seems to me we are so bad at doing them. I’ve seen repentance go wrong so many times before. A dear and very pious friend told me about going to an Ash Wednesday service once. Knowing the day’s theme she was not only contrite but felt deeply guilty sitting in the pew. Saying the liturgy she felt God’s judgment; confessing, she dwelt on her weakness and sin. Upon receiving the imposition of ashes—in the form of a cross on her forehead—the priest told her, “from dust you came and from dust you will return.” And at those words my friend felt worthless. Surely Christ could not bear her sins; surely God could not love her… It’s a horrifying story. My friend’s response was exacerbated by serious mental health problems. But unfortunately such anxiety at the prospect of facing God is all too common. Repentance is not—not—about despair or self-loathing, and yet for many of us that is what it can become.

But there’s a very different way repentance can go wrong. I have been in many Presbyterian churches, and have heard many Prayers of Confession. And I’m often surprised at just how trite many are. Sometimes sin is psychologized away as not being “true to ourselves,” or whittled down into a failure to “do our best.” Our iniquities are reduced to “messing up,” our fallen state to being “screw-ups.” There’s no “we have sinned by our own fault” in these prayers; no confession of not loving God and neighbor in what we have done and left undone. They suggest we hardly need God’s grace at all—I wonder if that’s their point. We are blessed at Nassau to have rich and honest Prayers of Confession; we are blessed to not have the Gospel robbed of its power and Christ’s love stripped of its Passion. The irony of those other prayers is that they’re no more able to trust in God’s love than my friend was. After all, why would we mask over our sinful abandonment of God’s good purposes if we were not afraid to reveal it?

But the tragedy of this approach is that by turning our sin into psychology or mistakes, it actually makes it worse for people like my friend. What’s so sad about my friend’s story is that she thought that God must be mad at her, and mad for everything. She felt guilty for every mistake and every screw-up. But we don’t need to repent for being screw-ups—to make a mistake is not to sin! Our God is loving but just, not nit-picky and obsessive! That is my real worry about Ash Wednesday: it risks confusing repentance and weakness, and thereby either terrifying us or tempting us to delude ourselves.

These are extreme cases, for sure, but I suspect this anxiety at repentance is true of most of us. Few of us like to dwell on our sins against God and neighbor; few of us can bear to honestly look into our souls for long and dwell on the selfishness, injustice, or malice we find. And if we can’t handle it—we think—surely God can’t either! This anxiety goes deep. Our Call to Worship cuts off at verse 13, with Joel calling the people to repent (Joel 2:13). The very next verse basically says, “who knows, maybe God will relent.” Who knows? Maybe. Paul tells us, “do not accept God’s grace in vain.” But so many of us are still trying to trust in God’s grace. Many of us are stuck at, “Who knows? Maybe.”

But everything changes when we remember Christ and his cross. Christ has revealed God’s love for us sinners once and for all. “For our sake God made him to be sin who knew no sin so that in Christ we might become the righteousness of God… See, now is the season, now is the day of salvation!” There can be no maybe after Christ; there is no “who knows?” when we look upon the cross! We are accepted; our sins have been forgiven; we have been reconciled to God! Just before our passage Paul tells us, “In Christ God was reconciling the world to God, not counting their trespasses against them.” It’s finished—done. We are reconciled to God.

Paul talks about this reconciliation as though our sins were exchanged for Christ’s righteousness, or as though we died with Christ and were made new with him. Those are challenging but profound metaphors, yet it’s important that we not lose Paul’s main point. God reconciled Godself to us through Christ. In the ancient world, reconciliation was a political idea. It was expected that only the one who fractured the relationship would seek reconciliation. So it was only sinners who do the reconciling. Not so with God! God’s love in Christ flips this order. Paul reminds us that God establishes reconciliation with humans, even though we broke the relationship by sinning. Such is the love of God. In Christ God was not counting our trespasses against us. And so, in Christ we are free—free from our sins, free from the anxiety of not knowing whether God accepts us as we truly are. Paul is so confident that he talks like the future is already here: “If anyone is in Christ: a new creation. Everything old passed away; behold, everything has become new!”

Because of Christ we are absolutely secure in God’s love and acceptance. So we are free to repent this Lent without anxiety. In the Bible, repentance doesn’t mean feeling guilty; it means turning one’s life around—following Jesus. We have been reconciled to God, so now we are free to “live for Christ,” as Paul puts it. We’re free to do the hard work of repenting—to take a careful look at ourselves, and see what we have done and left undone. Maybe our actions show that when things get tough, we don’t really care that much about racism. Maybe our spending shows that while we care for the poor, we care for stuff more. Maybe our treatment of those who wait on us shows that we don’t treat them with the dignity they deserve. But certainly, certainly we need to look not just at what we do, but who we are. Are you a lover of God and neighbor? How can you be more Christ-like?

Sisters and brothers in Christ, you are reconciled to God, so you are free to repent without fear. Sisters and brothers in Christ, you are a new creation, so you are free to live like it! I “entreat you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God!” Become more of what you already are—a new creation in Christ. May this be your challenge, and your comfort, this Lenten season. Amen.

© 2016 Charles Guth