February 13, 2013 – Ash Wednesday
© 2013 Evan D. Garner
I love Lent. (Cue the groans from our organist.) I love purple hangings. I love the Penitential Order. I love fasting and kneeling and generally feeling miserable. I celebrate the Agnus Dei, and I savor every word of the Prayer of Humble Access. I’d recite the Great Litany every day if I could convince anyone to say it along with me. I enjoy hearing lessons about Jesus’ suffering, and I take delight in hearing sermons about how wretched I am. Some people like Christmas music, but I think the hymns for Lent are the best ones we have.
Part of why I love Lent is the pageantry of penitence—the rigmarole of enacting our collective contrition. But it’s more than that. I also love the theology of Lent. I feel refreshed by a realistic look at my own brokenness—my own mortality. I feel a strong desire to confront the fullness of my sin and to bring to God my failings in search of forgiveness. Some of you—many of you—probably feel the exact opposite. I have heard our bishop, Kee Sloan, preach several Lenten sermons in which he says rather plainly, “I don’t like Lent.” And I can understand that. It does drain a little joy out of our spirit to hear over and over and over what “miserable offenders” we are. But I don’t think I like hearing how bad I am because I have masochistic tendencies. For me, the call to repentance and the message of forgiveness always go hand-in-hand.
A few weeks ago, in preparation for today, a priest and friend of mine posed a question on Twitter: “We’re thinking about not having Eucharist on Ash Wednesday…thoughts?” I jumped at the chance to respond, but, after I read what I wrote, I was surprised at what I had said. I tweeted, “I’ve always wondered why it’s a fast day yet we feast on Jesus. But I think the collect for [Ash Wednesday] implies a ‘yes’ to [Eucharist].” I was surprised because, not all that long ago, when I was in seminary, I asked the same question. Isn’t Ash Wednesday supposed to be a day of penitence and fasting? Why would we celebrate the Pascal Mystery—a profound statement of our forgiveness—when we’re supposed to be wallowing in our sin? And the best answer I could come up with is found in the collect for today: God “hate[s] nothing [he] has made.”
I’ve always imagined that, when it comes to forgiveness, God works the same way I do. When someone hurts me, I am usually willing to forgive that person if he or she offers a convincing apology. That’s exactly what I teach my children when I say, “Tell him you’re sorry and, this time, say it like you mean it.” We offer forgiveness to those who show us repentance, and our willingness to forgive usually reflects the degree to which we believe the offending person is sorry. The more someone is sorry, the more he or she is forgiven. But I don’t think that’s how God works.
With God, there is always forgiveness. He hates nothing he has made. That means that God does not withhold his mercy from us until we’ve proven that we’ve earned it, but, still, as my love of Lent might suggest, I believe that repentance has an important place in our faith. That’s because I believe that our ability to accept God’s forgiveness depends upon our willingness to repent. Yes, you are forgiven. And, yes, that doesn’t change. But your ability to know and believe in that forgiveness depends on whether you will come to God and seek it.
Isaiah saw this phenomenon at work among God’s people. They were well-practiced in the mechanics of repentance, but they didn’t know what it meant to be forgiven by God: “Why do we fast, but you do not see?” they asked God. “Why humble ourselves, but you do not notice?” They were going through all of the motions, but they weren’t receiving from God what they wanted. Why did God’s forgiveness elude them? Because, as Isaiah wrote, “You serve your own interest on your fast day.”
Repentance isn’t about going through the motions. It’s not about trying to convince God to forgive us. It’s about seeking a right relationship with him. We can’t know what it means to be forgiven until we recognize how amazing the gift of forgiveness really is. God doesn’t care whether we stand or kneel. God doesn’t care whether we say we’re sorry like we mean it. Repentance isn’t about “bow[ing] down…like a bulrush and [lying] in sackcloth and ashes.” We do all of that so that we might internalize God’s forgiveness and live as his redeemed people—and that’s what God really wants. So what does real fasting look like? What does it mean to live a forgiven life? According to Isaiah it involves loosing of the bonds of injustice and letting the oppressed go free, sharing bread with the hungry and bringing the homeless into your house.
That doesn’t mean that God is waiting for us to reach out to those in need before he will offer us forgiveness. It means that, if the nature of God’s mercy and forgiveness were real to us, we would show it in our lives—not just on our knees. Repentance and forgiveness go hand-in-hand. They always accompany one another, but not as a cause and effect. Our repentance doesn’t cause God to forgive us. The relationship between the two is circular. Knowledge of our forgiveness leads to our repentance, and our repentance leads to knowledge of our forgiveness, and standing in the middle of it all—keeping that circular motion going—is the “God of all mercy,” who offers “perfect remission and forgiveness.”