Archives for 2009

To become more merciful, Ash Wednesday (A,B,C) – 2009

February 25, 2009

Joel 2:1-2,12-17 or Isaiah 58:1-12; Psalm 103 or 103:8-14; 2 Corinthians 5:20b-6:10; Matthew 6:1-6,16-21

In the epistle we just heard, St. Paul beseeches us to be reconciled to God. And his way of being reconciled may surprise you. Paul does not suggest a confession, or propose any self-examination, or lay out a lengthy program or exercise. He tells us that we should simply accept the grace of God when the time is right, and, behold, now is that acceptable time.

This is not a message many of us are ready to hear. Most of us were taught that the lengthy period of Lent was one of penitence and fasting, a time provided for those who were separated from the church by their sins, so they could be reconciled by acts of penitence and forgiveness. In fact, we will hear words very similar to those following this. That is, of course, one meaning of our Lenten season.

For most of us, Lent is the time of sometimes painful self-examination, during which we scrutinize our habits, our spiritual practice, and our very lives – hoping to make ourselves better, trying to make ourselves worthy of the love of God.

We “ramp up” our prayer, fasting, and self-denial in order to remove worldly distractions from our lives. And we take on Bible study, classes, and service projects in order to add meaning and depth to our existence.

For some children, Lent means no candy. Or a coin in the box whenever they say a bad word. For adults, it may be consuming less meat or alcohol, or attending that Lenten program at the church.

However we go about it, the goal is pretty much the same: Lent makes us ready for Easter. Quite simply put, we are better able to appreciate Resurrection joys come Easter Day by enduring these Lenten disciplines now.

Except, just a moment. St. Paul says we need to be reconciled to God – now, today.

Not after enduring a forty-day fast. Not after lengthy Bible study. Not even after we pray, but now, here, today: Be reconciled to God.

And the blessed apostle not only invites us to be reconciled to God, he actually beseeches us. That is, he pleads, implores, presses, begs, and demands. “We beseech you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God. … Now is the acceptable time, now is the day of salvation.”

For many of us, this could mean a whole new kind of Lenten discipline. Instead of putting our hand into the refiner’s fire, we would be dancing in flames of love’s delight. Instead of seeking to squelch the voice of sin within us, we would be cultivating the sounds of joy. Instead of wallowing in our guilt, we would be reveling in our gratitude.

For not only did God create us, and everything there is; not only is all of creation wonderfully good; and not only are we offered the grace of God; but we are also offered that again, and again, and again.

We are offered God’s love in times of hardship, affliction, and tumult; in times of hunger, calamity, and sickness; and in times of peace, surplus, and prosperity.

We are offered God’s love both in times of distress and in times of accomplishment; in times of triumph and in times of failure; in times of righteousness and in times of sin.

Yes, that’s right: even when we sin. When we do things we know are wrong; when we hurt ourselves or others; when we lie, cheat and steal: that is when God loves us most.

Because when we sin, we need God even more. We need courage to turn away from darkness and to face the light. We need daring to turn away from the world’s false comforts and to accept the enduring grace of God. And we need faith to turn away from death, and face the new life that is freely given to all of us.

To paraphrase the blessed Apostle, God has put no obstacle in anyone’s way. God finds no fault in anyone’s ministry. And so, as servants of God, we are called to commend ourselves in every way. We are called to seek those qualities St. Paul writes about: purity, knowledge, forbearance, kindness, the Holy Spirit, genuine love, truthful speech, and the power of God.

Some of these are character traits we can cultivate in ourselves. We can commit ourselves anew to promote forbearance through patience, to emulate purity through simplicity, to encourage knowledge through study, to foster kindness through gentleness, and to nurture truthful speech.

The rest are not things that are up to us, really. They are not results of our labors, or products of our will. The Holy Spirit, genuine love, and the power of God are not up to us. There is nothing we can do to create these, nothing we can do to snuff them out.

But we do have a choice. And that choice is whether to allow ourselves to be led by the Holy Spirit, whether to let genuine love enter our heart, and whether to open ourselves up to the power of God.

And in this we have an entirely new idea for a Lenten spiritual discipline. Not giving up things, if such a discipline makes us miserable. Not taking on things, if that makes us miserable. But cultivating good qualities and opening ourselves up to the power of God, because only that can make us truly satisfied and content.

So, let’s go through that list of St. Paul’s in detail.

First, forbearance. What can we do to increase our patience, to cultivate self-control, tolerance, and restraint? The list of specific steps will be different for each of us, but the objective is the same: to become more merciful.

Next, purity. Now, we can’t become more pure, we cannot restore innocence – but we can cultivate decency, transparency, and simple cleanliness.

Then there’s knowledge. This may be more like a traditional Lenten discipline than many of the others, for we can increase our knowledge and love of for the divine by meditating on God’s holy Word. We can increase our knowledge of the church through reading. We can devote ourselves to learning more about who were are as Christian people.

After this comes kindness. This Lent, let us all seek to be more compassionate, more gentle, more considerate. It can be our aim to set aside all spite, viciousness, and harsh talk – no matter how people treat us.

Last among the virtues we can work on, is truthful speech. Honesty, candor, and integrity can be elusive. It is sometimes easier to tell a white lie than to maintain fidelity to truth. But if we take a few tentative steps in that direction, we will be better for it.

To become more merciful, more pure, more knowledgeable, more kind, more truthful – these cause us to behave more like God. And how can we do this? How can we emulate perfection, how can we aspire to the goodness that is the divine?

That’s where the second part of this discipline comes in: to allow ourselves to be led by the Holy Spirit, to let genuine love enter our heart, and to be open to the power of God.

The only way any of this can work, the only means of making this a life-changing season, the only method for making permanent changes from destructive patterns of behavior is to seek divine assistance.

And that is what we are especially called to do in Lent. To acknowledge that we are not doing the best we can, to aspire to do better, and then to seek God’s guidance and God’s help in the lifelong process of becoming all that we can be.

For in each one of us is a spark of divine goodness that compels us to persevere with great endurance through afflictions, hardships, calamities, beatings, imprisonments, tumults, labors, watching, and hunger.

We do this because we know at our core we are called to something better. As Christians, we are called to cultivate purity, knowledge, forbearance, kindness, and truthful speech. And this we do through the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, in the force of genuine love, and by the power of God.

So, this Lent, may we all be reconciled to God; for, behold, now is the acceptable time.

 

— The Rev. J. Barrington Bates is rector of the Church of the Annunciation in Oradell, New Jersey.