Yet even now, says the LORD,
return to me with all your heart,
with fasting, with weeping, and with mourning;
rend your hearts and not your clothing.
Return to the LORD, your God,
for he is gracious and merciful,
slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love,
and relents from punishing.
I have fond memories of Carnevale (Mardi Gras) while living in Italy. One of my favorite Carnevale was the year that Edward and I were invited to stay at a luxurious hotel as guests of the owner. I always wondered about the costumes that Italians seemed to wear during these festivities. So we rented real costumes – Romeo and Juliet – and spent the entire day walking around the city of Bologna in exquisite wear. We ate at a lovely hotel and even had a professional photographer take our photos of that magnificent day, which to this day, make us smile. The lavish energy around Carnevale is fascinating. It felt like a last loud shout of excessiveness before a time of deep silence. Notwithstanding its spirit of “too much,” it marks the eve of an ever-more significant season in the life of the Christian church – Ash Wednesday and the Lenten Pilgrimage.
Growing up, I mistakenly thought Ash Wednesday was a Roman Catholic ‘thing.’ Isn’t that sad? It was the fall-out, I believe, of being a reformed people who wanted to celebrate the resurrection and unwittingly sent out the message that the darkness of Lent and the cross were to be minimized. We were quick to celebrate Easter morning with bonnets and pretty clothes; we were slow to absorb the pain that got us there. As we know, the resurrection of Easter morning would have little significance without the cross; just as the cross would mean nothing, without the resurrection. The reality and tension of both are vital elements of our faith walk. I am thankful that we have recovered the sacred traditions of this season. I am thankful that our churches gather their communities throughout this season, beginning with the humble reminder of our mortality through the administering of ashes and ending with the piercing cry of a fallen Savior – leaving us with deadly silence and darkness until the light of the resurrection imposes hope for humanity.
This forty-day pilgrimage of Lent marks an entry into a wilderness season, if you will. The number forty marks a season of struggle. This was true for Noah and Moses – yet the end of both those journeys were framed with a new life of promise for those who followed. The number forty marks a season of temptation for Jesus – yet he is strengthened for the darkness of the cross that would lead him through a time of despair into a time of great hope and light. My dear friends, Lent is a forty-day season that invites each of us to go in silence to those places where we can explore the temptations and despair in our own lives. Lent is a time to examine our spiritual and emotional faith life. These are those deep places known only to ourselves and God. This wilderness season is an opportunity once again to refocus and reexamine who we are because of whose we are. We do not need to wear sackcloth. We’re not even expected to fast, but we are invited to remember that we are broken vessels shaped and molded by the one God of creation, the potter in whose hands we place our lives.
As we refocus, I remind us that the wilderness journey is not a time to surrender to our temptations and sins. It is a time to dig deep into our inner selves – to wrestle with our temptations and sins. It is a time to reaffirm (and redefine if need be) the state of our relationship with God. It is a time to reaffirm and redefine, our witness of God in Jesus, to the world. I understand today in ways that I had not previously, that the wilderness is a time and place from which we will exit stronger than when we entered. It is a time and place where we will exit with a determination that will strengthen us for the journey beyond today.
What joy to know that the journey before us is one we share, one that binds us together as a people of faith. As we embark on this corporate pilgrimage – embrace the words echoed in Christian churches throughout the world this week – “from ashes you came; to ashes you shall return.” These words are not simply a reminder of our mortality; they are a reminder that even in our mortality – because of the life, death and resurrection of our Lord Jesus, we have been gifted with the forgiveness of our sins and the hope of the resurrection. “In Jesus Christ, you have been forgiven.” And in the profound awareness of that hope, hear the words of the prophet Joel – “Return to the Lord your God.” May we turn to and return “with all our hearts” – to a spiritual and embodied way of life that reflects before one another and the world, the love and grace that we, in our brokenness, have received.