As we turn the calendars to March, Ash Wednesday can surprise many. It certainly sneaks up and surprises many in New Orleans as Mardi Gras comes to a sudden and crashing halt, when the bars close and the street cleaners come through Bourbon Street right at midnight, with loud speakers glaring – “CLEAR THE STREETS….MARDI GRAS IS OVER.” Indeed, the sudden shift to a more spiritual, disciplined life has begun.
Ash Wednesday: our readings not surprisingly take a sudden turn and we find ourselves in Jonah, one of my favorite books. Jonah is almost comical when you understand how he grudgingly goes to Nineveh, and with only a few half-hearted words becomes an agent of transformation for that town. It is a powerful story. The king, and the town, follow this up with action, including sitting in ashes. Outward rites reflect the inward reality.
I will talk more about ashes and their connection to Lent tonight at our service. 5:30 dinner, 6:30 Imposition of Ashes and Communion. All are welcome.
I promise to not be a goofball and make your cross like one of the ones above, but instead to help usher you into this time of spiritual discipline and “turning.” Because the serious questions of life come: Where do you turn for hope and renewal?
Luke’s passage is of Jesus telling the story of the Pharisee and tax collector, one who stands where all can see him saying, “God, thank you that I am not like other people….” The tax collector was standing far off, not even looking up to heaven, beating his breast and saying, “Have mercy on me a sinner.”
Repentance and humility are key themes for Lent. That’s what I mean by “turning” – to turn around from the old patterns. It is clear that God wants us to take seriously our actions and do the best we can. Yes, grace abounds, but that does not exempt us from serious introspection and a genuine turnaround in the areas of our lives that need it. Outward rites to assist the inward desires.
This is the essence of Ash Wednesday. And so as we take this day to seriously consider any Lenten discipline that may aid us in repentance and humility, self-sacrifice and introspection, may we look to the people of Nineveh or to the tax collector, both who come to understand inwardly and outwardly that change for them is important.
It is a time to turn to God and follow in new and hope-filled ways.