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I Invite You, Therefore…, Ash Wednesday – 2004

February 25, 2004

I invite you, therefore to a holy lent…

Ash Wednesday and these forty days of Lenten preparation often bring with them a lot of bad childhood baggage as well as a true invitation to wholeness and renewal. Contrary to the message many of us received as children, Lent is not about making us good after a year of bad behavior, not about adding or taking away some spiritual or dietary discipline in order to make us healthier or more worthy of salvation. It is not even really about journeying with Jesus into the wilderness. The invitation to a Holy Lent is rather about our own journey, toward intimacy with God, allowing ourselves to be drawn into the very heart of God. The disciplines of this season then, are spiritual tools helping us to remove the distractions which “draw us from the love of God”.

Being drawn to the love of God is in fact a call to return to our beginning, our essential selves, created from the dust of the earth, God’s own first creation. To return to that original nature, we must become aware of what keeps us from ourselves—through self examination, repentance, fasting, self-denial, meditation, prayer, reading and study of scripture. At first glance these may seem self evident, mom and apple pie sorts of things. Yet if we are serious and examine them closely, these Lenten disciplines are not a self-improvement program but a call to radical discipleship that could transform not only ourselves, but our world as well. But it will not be easy. The forty days of Lenten preparation are in many ways a call to live a life counter to 21st century culture.

Imagine: In a world where (Remember that old movie “Love Story”) “I love you means never having to say you are sorry”, we are called through self examination and repentance to say it every day and over and over again.

In a world where buying is synonymous with godliness, where consumption is an act of patriotism, we are called to fasting and self denial.

In a world of sound bites and instant messaging where image is everything, we are called to look inward to meditation and prayer, to spend time in reflection and silence.

In a world where the present is what matters we are called to study ancient texts, to examine the ways our history is the foundation for the future and knowing the past allows us to reshape what is to come.

In a world where respirators and life support machines pretend to keep us alive for ever, Ash Wednesday, more than anything else, reminds us that there is no denial of death.

This last topic is perhaps the one that draws us most clearly into our own wilderness journey. For when we no longer run away from death, but face its inevitability as Jesus did, the line between our life now and the one we will inherit becomes, as the Celts would say, thin indeed. Death is no longer something to fear, but a place we have already been and to which we will return—dust to dust, ashes to ashes. On this day, remembering that we are dust is to remember that our very substance is of the earth. And it is good.

The first line of the Collect for today echoes that thought. “Almighty and everlasting God, you hate nothing you have made.” Nothing. God’s love is for all creation—the beautiful parts, of course, but even its ugliness, striving for meaning. That means that all creatures, ourselves included, are the recipients of God’s unending and extravagant love. If we and the whole world could only believe this, the world would be a far better place. Gone would be our striving for power, acceptance, and attention. If only we could know that we were and are created for love’s sake, peace might become a reality.

Lent then, is about drawing us into that love, about realizing that we are in fact worth everything to God. Through the disciplines of this season we let go of those things which give us a pretense of worth, in order to come to ourselves made in God’s own image. Out of the silence and prayer we are offered a window to see that God is already there within. In Lent we lose ourselves to find our true self.

Every year at this time we are treated to the images of the pre-Lenten festivities, Mardi Gras celebrations of parades and most particularly, masked revelers dancing in the streets, the last celebration before the Lenten time of fasting and self denial. We don’t often think much about the costumes and masks, except as a part of the old traditions. Symbolically, though, they are marks of anonymity or disguise, worn deliberately and literally during Mardi Gras, but which many of us wear more figuratively through out the year. But on Ash Wednesday we take off the masks—both the Mardi Gras revelers and we who want to go deeper into ourselves and the heart of God.

Other ancient rituals offer the same unmasking. Morris Dancing, old English ritual dancing, is another example. In one sword dance, the participants paint their faces—they wear masks. The dance goes on and on with elaborate partnerships and steps and moves of the sword. And by the end the paint is removed from the dancers’ faces. They are unmasked and become who they are.

Lent, in a sense is a dance. A dance of unmasking, a dance toward authenticity, our true created self. For God to love us we do not need to wear a mask. We do not need to pretend that we are someone else, or that we do not make mistakes. We need only ask forgiveness and continue the dance of discovering who we are, stripped of all that masks us, there to find Jesus embracing and loving us all along. This is perhaps his perfection—his authenticity. He did not need a mask and neither do we. The true journey of Lent is to help us remove those masks as we are drawn more fully into the heart of God.

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Christopher Sikkema


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