Day 1: The Power of Repentance
Illustration: Juliana Crownover
Ash Wednesday is full of joy…
The source of all sorrow is the illusion that of ourselves we are anything but dust. [i]
Thomas Merton (d. 1968)
Almighty and Everlasting God, our Heavenly Father, you hate nothing you have made and forgive the sins of all who are penitent: Create and make in us new and contrite hearts, that we, worthily lamenting our sins and acknowledging our wretchedness may obtain of you, the God of all mercy, perfect remission and forgiveness; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, forever and ever. Amen.[ii]
Old Testament Lesson
The Church has employed this passage from Joel for centuries to begin the Lenten season. It exhorts us to leave our wickedness, to repent and to return to the Lord. Joel was ministering during a period of terrible deprivation because of a swarm of locusts that had destroyed the food supply. The prophet employs the locust calamity to warn of an even greater judgment to come, admonishing the people to fear the terrible “day of the Lord” (Joel 2.1-2) when their God would return for judgment. Before God comes to judge the world, there is still time to repent with fasting, contrite worship and prayer.
Joel 2.1-2, 12-19
1Blow the horn in Zion and sound the battle cry on my holy mountain. Let all the inhabitants of the land be perturbed because the day of the Lord has come. Indeed, it is near. A day of darkness and calamity, a day of threating storm clouds like darkness spread out upon the mountains; a great and mighty people like has never been from long past, nor will again be, for years to come.
12And so now, says the LORD, return to me with all your heart, with fasting, with weeping and with mourning. Tear your heart to pieces, but not your garments; turn to the LORD your God because He is gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in covenant love and relents from inflicting calamity. 14Who knows if He might turn and relent and leave behind a blessing, a grain or a drink offering belonging to the LORD your God. 15Sound the horn in Zion, prepare to fast, proclaim a holy day. Gather the people, make solemn preparations in the assembly, call together the Elders, collect the children, even the nursing infants. Let the bridegroom come out from his bedchamber and the bride emerge from her bridal chamber. 17Between the portico and altar of the Temple, let the priests and the ministers of the Lord weep; let them say, “Look with compassion, O LORD, on your people” and “Do not hand over your heritage for reproach, for derision among the foreign nations.” Why should they say among the people, “Where is their God?”
New Testament Lesson
This passage is from the so-called Sermon on the Mount, Jesus’ most famous discourse in the New Testament. In it, Jesus warns his listeners to avoid outward show when performing acts of piety. The great irony of the Church’s use of the text on Ash Wednesday is that the first thing we do after hearing this passage read is to put ashes on our foreheads, an outward sign of our piety! This doesn’t make receiving the imposition of ashes wrong. It simply warns against the ever-present danger of developing pride when living out the Christian faith. The ashes on our foreheads remind us that we are dead in our sins and trespasses without the merciful intervention of God. Thus, in Lent, we must take care to guard against the source of all sin, pride, in our lives.
16When you fast, do not be gloomy like the hypocrites, for they make their faces appear unsightly so they may be seen fasting by men. Truly I say to you, they have their reward in full. 17But when you fast, anoint your head and wash your face 18so that you might not be seen fasting by men, but secretly by your Father. And your father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you.
19Do not store up treasure for yourself on earth, where moth and rust destroy and where thieves break in and steal. 20Instead, store up treasure for yourself in heaven where moth and rust do not destroy and where thieves do not break in and steal. 21For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.
Questions for Reflection
- Joel seems to emphasize the necessity of preparation in worship, repentance and acts of piety. In what ways will you prepare your heart for this Lenten season?
- What are the locusts in your life, the things that keep you from a more intimate walk with God? List them. What can you do to create more space for your spiritual life over the next forty days?
- Jesus doesn’t seem to be criticizing fasting and almsgiving. Rather, he seems to be urging that they be done for the right reasons. What are the right reasons for fasting and giving alms?
- Which of the acts of self-denial suggested by Jesus and/or Joel might be helpful for you during this Lenten season?
Reflection by Kevin Dodge (email)
Ash Wednesday, the first day in Lent, is traditionally a day of fasting and repentance. Our Prayer Book describes it like this:
The first Christians observed with great devotion the days of our Lord’s passion and resurrection, and it became the custom of the Church to prepare for them by a season of penitence and fasting. This season of Lent provided a time in which converts to the faith were prepared for Holy Baptism. It was also a time when those who, because of notorious sins, had been separated from the body of the faithful were reconciled by penitence and forgiveness, and restored to the fellowship of the Church. Thereby, the whole congregation was put in mind of the message of pardon and absolution set forth in the Gospel of our Savior and of the need which all Christians continually have to renew their repentance and faith.
I invite you, therefore, in the name of the Church, to the observance of a holy Lent, by self-examination and repentance; by prayer, fasting and self-denial; and by reading and meditating on God’s holy Word. [iii]
Notice the corporate focus here. We are first exhorted to examine our souls, to repent, to pray, to fast and to deny ourselves individually. Yet we do these things together. Why? We do these acts together because we are all in the same boat. We are all born in sin (Ps 51.6) and, this side of resurrection, are deeply affected by the sinful choices of ourselves and others.
This corporate nature of sin has been largely lost in our post-modern world. We all may readily admit that we are not perfect. But, generally, we think our sin has little impact on the broader world. We might hurt a few people along the way with our bad choices, but the world just goes on with little outward effect.
Lent is a time to rethink this perspective. Our individual sin has an enormous effect on not just our intimate relationships, but on the world at large. The reason for this is because sin is rebellion against God. Sin represents our preference for the things of the world, which are passing away, instead of the things of God, which are eternal.
Lent affords us the space to reset our priorities and to examine ourselves thoroughly and honestly. It helps us take stock and evaluate what has gotten in the way of our relationship with God. It gives us the chance to repent and turn back to the loving arms of God.
Alexander Solzhenitsyn famously wrote in the Gulag Archipelago,
If only it were all so simple! If only there were evil people somewhere insidiously committing evil deeds and it were necessary only to separate them from the rest of us and destroy them. But the line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being. And who is willing to destroy pieces of his own heart?[iv]
The prophet Joel tell us to cut our hearts to pieces, to return to the Lord with fasting, weeping and mourning. Jesus tells us to do the same, but admonishes us to do it quietly and without any outward show. Both Joel and Jesus promise a reward if we’ll do so. The reward is a deeper, more fulfilling, more authentic walk with Christ. As we’ll see, the ultimate reward is union with Christ, the death of death and everlasting life. The reward Lent promises us if we’ll deny ourselves for a season is a deeper and richer spiritual life.
Attend an Ash Wednesday Service.
Christians traditionally fast from all food until dinner-time. Consider following this practice.
Plan to give up something you enjoy throughout this Lenten Season as a means of simplicity and a reminder to pray.
[i] Thomas P. McDonnell, Through the Year with Thomas Merton: Daily Meditations from His Writings (Colorado Springs, CO: Image Books, 1985), 27.
[ii] The Book of Common Prayer (New York: Church Publishing, 1979), 264.
[iii] Ibid., 264–265.
[iv] Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, The Gulag Archipelago, 1918-1956: An Experiment in Literary Investigation (Westview Press, 1997), 168.