I have always thought the Ash Wednesday liturgy offers a strange contrast. We engage in the very visible sign of having ashes spread across our foreheads. And yet, our gospel lesson this day speaks very clearly of not showing your piety publicly. But this year, the contrast of Ash Wednesday feels even more pointed. Typically on this day, we talk about giving things up for Lent, fasting, and entering into a season of contemplation about not just our mortality, but the sinfulness that separates us from God. But we have spent the last eleven months fasting – fasting from social gatherings, fasting from touch and uncovered faces, even fasting from receiving the sacred meal. And for a large portion of those months, we have been in deep contemplation about the exponentially rising death all around us, the brokenness of our common life, the sin of oppression and racism. The last thing I want to hear from the church today is how I need to give up more.
I think that is why I love the text from Isaiah this year so much. God offers a mirror to God’s people. On first glance, God’s people are certainly doing the things that are expected – in fact, the “things” that are often of Lent. They are fasting and lying in sackcloth and ashes. They are doing the work of penitence. But the acts are not the problem – the motivation of the acts are the problem. They are doing acts of contrition as sort of an exchange: fasting so that God will give them favor; Sure, their behavior may end in the oppression of others, but they are doing the manual action called for in this moment.
But God is having nothing of hollow spiritual practices. If those practices are not leading to the loosening of the bonds of injustice, or the undoing of the thongs of the yoke, or the freeing of the oppressed, they are meaningless. If the people of God are not sharing their bread with the hungry, bringing the homeless poor into their homes, covering the naked, and caring for their own kin, then fasting is little more than act in futility, an action done without reflection, intention, or love of neighbor.
So what do the words of Isaiah have to do with living in month eleven of a pandemic? I am going to say something that might be a little controversial, but here you go: the church is not asking you to fast this Lent. Now, in a few moments, I am going to say these very words, “I invite you, therefore, in the name of the Church, to the observance of a holy Lent, …by…fasting, and self-denial…” But you have already fasted for a whole year. You have already been in a season of self-denial. The ashes you will impose on your head later are not a reminder that you are dust and to dust you shall return. You know that reality all too well now. Instead, we are going to take a cue from Isaiah tonight. You have already done the manual acts of Lent. Now your invitation is the “so that” part of the action. Our work this Lent is to reflect upon what has been a most difficult year and to ponder together what this past year of fasting is inviting us into. How has this season of fasting, this season of struggle, this season of brutality transformed our sense of purpose and identity – a people focused on God’s work loosening the bonds of injustice, freeing the oppressed, and sharing our bread? How has the sobering nature of death, grittily rubbed onto our foreheads tonight, changing our resolve to lean into God, lean into this Christian community, lean into the work of sharing God’s love with those who do not know that love?
The rest of the invitation I will read in a moment says this, “I invite you, therefore, in the name of the Church, to the observance of a holy Lent, by self-examination and repentance; by prayer…and by reading and meditating on God’s holy Word.” You have done the rituals of fasting and self-denial long enough. As we look forward to these next forty days together, our work is to spend time with God, scripture, and one another and answer the question, “So what?” What are we going to do now? What are we going to claim and what are we going to let go? How is the grit of ash this year not the sensation of defeat, but of invitation. I invite you, therefore, in the name of the Church, to the observance of a holy Lent. Amen.