“This has certainly been a winter to remember,” a woman said to me last Monday. Then on Sunday, another person told me, “I can’t wait for spring vacation to come so we can get away from all this snow and cold down in Florida.” Winter. A season, that right about this time of February, many of us are ready to be done with. But there are certain qualities of winter I want to invite you to consider on this Ash Wednesday evening which marks the beginning of the Lenten season.
In the book, The Promise of Winter, Martin Marty says winter can be seen as a season of quiet times that gives us occasion to “lean back and search our interior lives.” He writes, “Winter has its inevitable place in the human condition. Farmers know that in the rhythm of the year and the nature of soil, there is a reason for fields to lie fallow for [winter.] So too we know that in the rhythm of the day and the nature of the soul, winter offers quiet times for spiritual reflection…as we live out the ordinary days and fallow seasons of our life.” (p. 7)
Micah Marty, Martin’s son, a wonderfully gifted photographer (who did the photos for The Promise of Winter), suggests that images of the natural landscape of winter provide metaphors that capture the human landscape of what can be called a “wintry spirituality.” He writes, “Winter clarifies. Between the bright light, the clean air, and the absence of obscuring foliage in the trees, winter let’s us see farther and more clearly. We may not always like what we see – particularly after the crystalline white snow has melted and we face a barren landscape. But at least winter lets us clearly see what we are up against.” (p. 9)
Two powerful phrases: “Searching the interior of our lives,” coupled with a “clarifying season that enables us to see more clearly.” Together they provide a description of our task of faith for the season of Lent. I would add, as well, one more seasonal parallel. Winter has a quality of “strengthening,” in that it challenges and can make us uncomfortable. This, too, is an important part of Lent.
Ash Wednesday addresses two realities of our life – sin and death. In this service we are challenged to come face to face with our sin, a reality we might rather not think about all that often perhaps, but nevertheless is inevitable in our lives. Which is the reason we pray every Sunday in this chapel, “Loving Father, we confess that we often disappoint thee and ourselves, both by what we do and what we leave undone. We are all too aware of our humanness.” In the ancient church, the monks made a list of what they considered to be the “seven deadly sins.” These sins, they believed, were lethal to the harmony of community life. I wonder if anybody here can recite that old list of seven? I could come up with just four, so I went to Wickipedia to look up the rest. The seven are: envy, pride, covetousness, gluttony, sloth, lust and anger.
In my internet search on the “seven deadly sins,” I came across an interesting commentary on that list written by English author, Ian Fleming. (Yes, the same person who wrote those James Bond books. But he really was an interesting writer and philosopher as well.) While Fleming did not dispute the original list of seven deadly sins, he developed an alternative list of what he considered to be seven “even deadlier sins.” They were: avarice (as an immoderate desire for wealth), then cruelty, snobbery, hypocrisy, self-righteousness, moral cowardice and malice.
If you were to create you own list of “seven deadly sins” according to the criteria of what is lethal to life together, what others might you add? Looking at recent headlines in the news, I would add sins like: bigotry, extremism, religious intolerance, hatred of the other, bullying among young people. However the list is compiled, one thing is clear – the old biblical concept of sin is a part of the life we know. Sin can neither be denied nor ignored.
So tonight, with humble hearts we confess with the psalmist our sin and ask for God’s forgiveness. “Have mercy on me, O God, according to your steadfast love…Wash me thoroughly from my inequity and cleanse me from my sin…Create in me a clean heart, O God, and put a right spirit within me.”
God knows the whole truth of who you and I are. God knows our sins, our foibles, our rationalizations. When we have the willingness to honestly own up to those ragged edges of ourselves – confess our sin – God accepts us as we are and that is grace. To be fully known and fully accepted is an amazing grace that consecrates our foibles, blesses our idiosyncrasies, and forgives our sins, that we may be set free from a past we cannot change and opened to a future in which we are changed.
Like fresh fallen snow, God’s grace covers our sins and creates newness in the landscape of our lives. This grace, however, is not cheap. The price tag to us is humility. We must give up making accommodation for things we know are not right; we must give up caring so much about what our friends and the world thinks of us; we must stop doing those things which are detrimental to others and ourselves. Lent is that time when we are asked to intentionally examine our motives and desires; it is the season of faith in which we ask ourselves where we are headed and where our real priorities and commitments lie.
Following our confession tonight, we will practice the ancient ritual of ashes, somberly acknowledging the reality of death.
“Remember you are dust, and to dust you shall return.” These solemn words from scripture will be said as the gritty ashes are placed on your forehead tonight. There is a blessing in this, for it reminds us that each of us has only so much time on this earth. As Anne Lamott quipped, “Everyone on this bus is terminal.” We don’t have forever. Nothing stays the same, people come in and out of our lives, opportunities appear and then vanish, putting off until tomorrow might be too late. The ritual of ashes powerfully reminds us that our time is limited that we may have a heightened awareness of the gift we have in each day. Sometime ago I heard a sermon that was titled something like “The Most Powerful Dash.” The preacher, I don’t remember his name, talked about tombstones and how they always have two dates on them – a birth date and a death date. Then he asked, “What separates them?” and answered, “A dash – a simple small dash that represents a life that was lived.” What you and I do with our dash, the present time we have, is what the smudge on our foreheads is meant to cause us to think about.
Jane Kenyon, the distinguished American poet, certainly thought about the brevity and frailty of her days. Dying of leukemia at the age of forty-eight, she worked with her husband, David Hall, also a distinguished poet, to compile what she knew would be her last volume of poems. She titled the book Otherwise, after this poem that tells a truth. She wrote…
I got out of bed
on two strong legs.
It might have been
otherwise. I ate
milk, ripe, flawless
peach. It might
have been otherwise.
I took the dog uphill
to the birch wood.
All morning I did
the work I love.
At noon I lay down
with my mate. It might
have been otherwise.
We ate dinner together
at a table with silver
candlesticks. It might
have been otherwise.
I slept in a bed
in a room with paintings
on the walls, and
planned another day
just like this day.
But one day, I know,
it will be otherwise.
One day it will be otherwise, that is human truth. We need to remember that how we live, how we love, what we stand for, what we are willing to risk, the moments of beauty and memory and also sadness and pain are all the very essence of our life. Remember… be grateful… live lives of honesty and precious intensity.
Therefore tonight, may we commit ourselves to a Lenten discipline that clarifies and strengthens in this wintry season of our souls. Let us with open, honest hearts acknowledge who we are as we seek God’s grace and forgiveness. Let us acknowledge the fragility of life, even as we give thanks for what we have.
One day it will be otherwise. All of us have a date of birth and a date of death. May we commit ourselves to living with love, integrity and compassion for all that happens in between.
May it be so. In the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit. Amen.