This day strikes a somber note at the beginning of the season of Lent. It's an important note - one that we must hear. Because the world we live in does not like to look at death - unless it's in some flashy, overly expensive, overly bloody movie where lots of things explode. In real life, though, our society has moved as far away from death as possible. We don't like to see it - or even to think about it. Instead, our culture encourages us to think about ourselves as self-dependent units - people who can do and accomplish anything they put their minds to - all by ourselves.
And yet, what we cannot accomplish all by ourselves is overcoming death. We cannot will ourselves to live forever. We cannot even know the day or the hour of our death. Our mortal bodies are utterly and completely at the mercy of God. And this day forces us to look our own mortality in the eye and to name the fact that we are dependent on God. It's profoundly counter-cultural. So is the second piece.
In our worship today we confess our sins in a much expanded way. We admit that we contribute to the suffering of others. We admit that we have uncharitable thoughts toward our neighbors. We admit that we are often selfish, dishonest, and unkind. We admit quite a lot of other things, too. And we ask for forgiveness. We repent of these things. And place ourselves again in the hands of God.
We do both of these things today, not because we want to focus on the bad things, but because we believe that God wants us to live through them, and to grow stronger in our faith because we have struggled with them. We believe that as Christians we are on a holy journey - learning to become more and more like Jesus, learning to love our God and our neighbor a little better each day. And in this season, we are invited to intentionally focus on the things that cause us to stumble. The habits, people, or things that cause distance between us and God - or that cause hurt or harm to our neighbors. We are invited to do this work so that when the season of Lent is over, we will emerge as people who have been changed. People who walk a little more closely to Jesus. People who have grown in our relationships with God and with each other.
We look both our mortality and our fallibility in the eye today in worship. So that we might let go of those things that cause us to stumble. So that we might draw more near to God. And so that we might recognize how much we need God, not only on this day - but for eternity. It is a serious way to begin this season, and it is profoundly important that we look this day in the eye, and that we allow it to be the holy start to a holy season of self-reflection, prayer, and repentance.
As we do this work, remember that there are two very good pieces of news today. First, we do all this together in worship because none of us are expected to do this work by ourselves. We need each other. We need support, companionship, and sometimes for our friends to hold us accountable. We cannot be Christian by ourselves - God engineered us to need community.
The second good piece of news is that after we receive ashes, after we confess, and after we pray, the service turns to God's Table. And at the altar, we receive the spiritual food of communion - the Body and Blood of Christ. And these gifts promise us that we are God's children, heirs of God's eternal kingdom. This promise should be both what encourages us to do the work of this Lenten season - and what allows us to do it safely. Because we know that Easter is coming. And we know that even as we look at our own mortality - even as we confront our own death - that God has stored up something else for us. We know that even when our bodies fail, there is eternal life stored up for us because of the Cross and Passion of our Lord.
So, I invite you this day, in the name of the Church, to observe a holy Lent. Do whatever it is that will help you connect to God. If that's prayer - then build in extra time and space and patterns of prayer. If it's study, then read - study Scripture, read Episcopal Relief and Development daily reflections, come to our Lenten series on Sunday mornings, and discuss the mysteries of God with us. If it's fasting - then fast. But don't just fast from food, fast from the obstacles - the things that cause you to stumble. If you find God in service - then serve. Take something else on that will enliven the people around you and do so lovingly - and with all your heart. Do the work. But remember as you do it that this life is not all there is. Remember, even as you contend with the darkness, that our God is the God who always brings light out of darkness and life out of death.
And if you do this work - if we do this work - then we will emerge from the tomb with Christ at Easter - a new creation.
God bless you in this holy season.