First, we acknowledge our mortality and our sin. We are marked with ashes and reminded that we are dust and that we will return to dust. Then comes Psalm 51 and the long “litany of penitence” in which we confess the many ways we fail to live as we should in the limited time allotted to us.
There is something refreshingly honest in that. Even if we mostly try not to think about it, we all know that we will die someday, and we all know that do not always do right.
But, of course, if we stopped there, we would be left without hope. Thankfully, our service continues with the words of God’s forgiveness and love, and the sacrament that unites us to Jesus Christ in his death and resurrection.
And that, in a nutshell, is our faith. We move—or rather, we are moved—from sin and death to life and love.
Like our service today, Lent, which begins right now, is all about the move from sin and death to life and love.
In just a minute, I will invite you all, in the name of the Church, to the observance of a holy Lent. In that invitation, the Prayerbook describes for us some of the things we can do in order to observe a holy Lent. Self-examination and repentance. Prayer, fasting, and self-denial. Reading and meditating on God’s holy Word.
Now, those are all good things to do anytime. But more than any other season in the Christian year, Lent is a time for us to be brutally honest with ourselves about where we stand in our relationship with God.
Lent invites us to reflect on our priorities. I don’t mean what we say we value. I mean the priorities that are reflected in the way we live, how we spend our money, where we put our emotional energy. What would the people who know us best say is important to us? What would they say about our love of God and neighbor?
For me, I suspect for most of us, answering those questions can be painful.
Sin is bad enough. The fact is, I do things I ought not to do. I leave undone things I ought to do. I sin against God and neighbor in thought and word and deed.
It is even worse to think about my own death or the death of the people I love. A week ago, I said last rites for a woman who died a few hours later. As I prayed for her, it hit me once again that someday I will be the one lying there.
Those are hard truths, and most of the time we turn away from them. Perhaps that is as it should be. But we cannot really escape the hard truths of our own lives, not indefinitely. At some point, we have to turn and face our sin and our mortality. Lent is the season when the Church invites us to face those hard truths, beginning with this service.
And so we work at self-examination and repentance and the other Lenten disciplines.
But as in this service, so in the rest of Lent, there is the good news. Even in Lent, we hear the word of God’s forgiveness and love. Even in Lent, we hear the good news of Christ’s victory. Even in Lent, we hear the good news of God’s kingdom of justice and mercy and love.
Indeed it is the good news of God’s love for us that makes it possible for us to face the hard truths of our lives with courage and faith and hope. We can acknowledge our sin, because we know that in Jesus Christ we are forgiven. We can acknowledge that we will die, because we know that someday we will live again with Christ our Lord.
I am grateful for the good news that we hear even in Lent. But we should not hurry too quickly to the good news of Easter. Nor should we linger over long with our sin and mortality. Rather, Lent is about the move from one to the other.
What Lent adds to the lessons of Ash Wednesday is time, time to practice, time to grow, time to come closer to God, time to experience that move from sin and death to love and life.
I have a friend in Georgia who is currently on one of those funky diets. For now, my friend is eating no gluten and no processed food and no sugar and no alcohol and hardly any fruit or carbohydrates. It all sounds grim to me, and he says I am right.
His plan is to stay on this diet for a few weeks while he gets all the toxins out of his body.
Lent is like a spiritual version of that diet. For a few weeks, we adopt practices that help to purify our spiritual systems. To the degree that we can, we avoid sin and live right. We give up those things that distract us from God. We take on practices that support our efforts to grow in the knowledge and love of God.
And because Lent is just six weeks, we can commit to things that we might not be able to sustain indefinitely. I am giving up sweets and alcohol and Sudoku. Come Easter, I intend to return to all three! But I can give them up for a while.
But a kind of spiritual detox, important as it is, does not exhaust the meaning of Lent. The goal of Lent is for us to draw closer to God permanently.
This, too, is a little like my friend’s diet. For now, he is giving up everything that makes eating worthwhile. After a few weeks, he will relax and eat some of that stuff again. But his long-term hope is that this diet will change how he eats in an ongoing way. Going forward, he will eat some carbohydrates, for example, but not as much as he used to.
Lent is like the strict period of my friend’s diet. But coming out of Lent, we can hopefully have developed new and spiritually healthy habits.
So, for example, if you do not have a morning prayer routine, you might try saying the service of Morning Prayer from the Prayerbook every day during Lent. It takes about fifteen minutes. Then, if that is too much, and it may well be, you could continue after Lent ends with a scaled down prayer routine. And you are spending a few minutes in prayer every morning.
My own goal is to find time for a weekly Sabbath. Lent is a busy season for me, so it won’t be easy. But if I can keep a weekly Sabbath during Lent, then I can surely continue to observe some sort of Sabbath going forward. And, if so, that will give me an opportunity to grow closer to God.
All of this is one long way of saying that I encourage you to take the invitation to a holy Lent seriously, to spend time prayerfully reflecting on what you could do in this holy season to grow closer to God, and to reflect prayerfully on habits that you could begin to form that will draw you closer to God in an ongoing way.
And I urge this in the name of Jesus Christ, the pioneer and perfecter of our faith. Amen.