Joel 2:1-2, 12-17; Psalm 51:1-18; 2 Corinthians 5:20b-6:10; Matthew 6:1-6, 16-21
Ash Wednesday marks the beginning of Lent, a season of reflection and penitence. It’s not an easy season. It asks us to confront our sinful nature and see how far we have wandered away from God. It’s an uncomfortable, challenging experience, and it’s supposed to be.
But why should we be so discomfited? After all, in the secular world, “sin” is all around us. Rugby players are sent to the “sin bin”. Perfumes are marketed with names like “Red Sin”. There are cocktails themed on the Seven Deadly Sins. A well-known diet even divides the world into “free” food and “sin” food. Sin is no longer something serious. It just means something a wee bit naughty. It has little real meaning for most people. When most secular people do think of sin in a Christian context, they associate it with guilt, shame, and oppression.
And that is because often, under the banner of Christianity, the word “sin” has been weaponised. It turns into a malicious word designed to cause hurt and pain, dressed up in concern for the state of one’s soul. “Sin” in this context is a way of telling someone “I dislike what you do/who you are, and therefore so does God.” And because those who use the word “sin” to wound others do so loudly and repeatedly, that is the version of “sin” that secular society often associates with Christians.
Ash Wednesday is noted for the custom of imposition of ashes, whereby the sign of the cross is marked on the foreheads of the faithful during the course of the liturgy. The symbolism is perhaps somewhat confused in our lections for today. The theme of preparation for God’s judgement is overshadowed not so much by Joel’s “Rend your hearts and not your garments”, as by the dominical sayings in Matthew 6, which condemn making an exhibition of piety.
In Joel the traditional mourning rite of tearing garments has been deployed as a sign of repentance, of turning to God, and the prophet is concerned that this be turned inwards, and not merely expressed visibly. The Gospel reading on the other hand makes no explicit reference to repentance at all, but to acts of righteousness, and to fasting. The point being that in the Judaism of Jesus’ day public displays of righteousness and fasting were deployed to emphasise the idea of confessing and seeking to atone for the sins of others.
The idea that the goodness of the righteous, and their suffering, can in some way ameliorate God’s judgement and work in the cause of the salvation of Israel is deeply rooted in the prophetic tradition, such as in the servant songs of second Isaiah, and developed further in the Jewish martyr theology then applied to Jesus.
But misusing “sin” to cast judgement on others is nothing new, and in Matthew’s Gospel there are people who probably sound very much like people you know. Those who love to show off their displays of charity with a trumpet call. Those who pray loudly so that others can hear them being holy. Those who want you to know how much they’re suffering with their fasting. Jesus dismisses them all with a simple “They already have their reward.” In other words, these not-so-pious people are seen by others as pious and gain recognition for it. They’ve got what they wanted – the attention and adulation of others, but God isn’t so easily fooled.
Jesus instead urges us to be secretive. An odd choice of words perhaps, given that we usually associate secretive behaviour with sinful behaviour. But here secretive lacks malicious connotations. It just means doing something quietly and without fuss. So what does this have to do with Lent, and what we do with the word “sin”?
Jesus, in advising secrecy, is advising us to stop measuring sinfulness by external measures determined by our peers. Instead, sin is about looking in on ourselves. It’s about asking where we have gone wrong, and how we can move into a better relationship with God. And because no person is perfect, and none of us has a perfect relationship with God, we can’t judge others or be judged by others. We can only be judged by God. And so, we don’t need to prove to anybody that we are praying. We just pray. We don’t need to grimace and gurn when we fast. We just fast. It’s enough that God knows we are moving towards him. That’s the treasure in heaven we build up.
Because ultimately, if all we find are our faults and failings, we’re stuck as sinners. We’re hopeless and helpless. But when we find our faults and failings, and then offer them to God, we move from sinner to saved. So maybe Lent, in all it’s challenge and discomfort, is joyous in itself. We’re sinners. We turn to God. We are saved.
We could do a lot worse than let the words of the prophet Joel guide our spiritual journeys during Lent:
“Return to me with all your heart, with fasting and weeping and mourning for your sins. Rend your hearts, and not your garments, says the Lord God Almighty.” (Joel 2. 12:2)Joel 2. 12:2