The shift from Mardi Gras to Lent can be jarring if you are on Bourbon Street at midnight having too much fun – “CLEAR THE STREETS….MARDI GRAS IS OVER.” Indeed, the church calendar makes a sudden shift today and 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.
Whenever I think of these kinds of outward rites like the Imposition of Ashes which many of us encounter today, I think of one of my favorite hymns, As a Chalice Cast of Gold, esp. the first and last verses:
1. As a chalice cast of gold, Burnished, bright, and brimmed with wine, Make me, Lord, as fit to hold Grace and truth and love divine. Let my praise and worship start With the cleansing of my heart. 4. When I dance or chant Your praise, When I sing a psalm or hymn, When I preach Your loving ways, Let my heart add its Amen. Let each cherished outward rite Thus reflect Your inward light.
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. 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.