Matthew 6:1-21, "Beware of practicing your piety before others . . ."
Joel 2:1-18, "Yet even now, says the Lord, return to me with all your heart . . ."
So today we begin this season of Lent. We hear scriptures tell us, “Return again to the Lord, tear not your clothing (a sign of mourning), but tear your hearts! For God is a God of steadfast love for the people. Now is the time, now is the day of salvation. Be reconciled to God.”
And then we receive instructions about how we are to fast and pray, how we should give what we have to others from the gospel of Matthew. These are all reminders that our duty in this season, our duty in every season is to seek the things of God, not the things of this world, not the things that corrupt or fade. We turn again toward God, to make ourselves empty so that we might be filled, to remind ourselves of death, so that we might have life, to face these ashes, so that like the phoenix rising from the ashes, we may prepare ourselves for the light of resurrection, no the fire of resurrection to burn again in our hearts.
This season of Lent was originally not for the whole church, but only for those who were entering the Christian faith. It was a time of preparation, where these soon to be officially brought into the congregation through the waters of baptism, this group fasted and prayed, served the poor, helped those who were helpless.
Their job was to empty themselves, so that they could be filled.
It was as if they were taking a journey, but one unlike any they had ever taken before. Most of the time you pack a bag, thinking of what you will need along the way, making sure that you have food and water, making sure that you have enough clothing. But this journey was one where those on it are asked to get rid of things, to give to the poor, to give of themselves in service, to fast, to give up their food, and to pray, to give up that time to God. These are all activities that make room, that make space for God. Because unless there is space for God, unless we make room, God may be absent from out lives.
It is like this bird’s nest, constructed twig by twig, bit by bit until there was this tiny little hollow place in the center, filled with the softest things that that bird could find. This is where the eggs would be laid, this is where this new life would hatch, would chirp.
But that bird had to prepare first, prepare that empty space.
You see, sometimes we have to prepare that space too. And for us, for us who live in a culture with schedules and busyness, with all the TV and radio and Facebook and Instagram, that we could ever want in our lives, with more things that we will ever really need, for us part of the preparation is to empty everything out.
And sometimes it is our worries. And we remember these ashes, and we know that some of the things that we think are so very important today, are not really. The ashes remind us that nothing is permanent.
And sometimes it is our possessions; and these are things that will break, that will fade, that will slide away from us.
And sometimes it is our pride, because we don’t want to be small, we are afraid that God will ask us to do something that will make everyone think differently of us.
And of course sometimes it is the busyness of our lives that makes no room for God; and we must be empty.
We must sit in silence so that we may hear God’s voice. We must go without food at times so that we may feast of what is really important, so that we may be hungry for the bread of life. We must serve those who are in need, because in them, in our emptying ourselves for them, we will find a fullness that we could not imagine.
We receive these ashes on our foreheads as we prepare. And many years ago during that preparation time for the new Christians, those who were already part of that congregation began observing these rites along with those who were being initiated into the faith. Because we are a people who must continually empty ourselves again.
The world tries to hard to fill us with the wrong things. So each year, we come here, we receive these ashes that remind us of our initial entry into the faith, with the sign of the cross, a sign of baptism.
And we empty ourselves again . . . so that we may be filled.
For we know, as we go throughout these forty days, a number that signals completion, this is our complete emptiness, we will be filled. We know that a new fire will rise out of the ashes of this day, that the light of Christ will rise yet again on Easter morning.