Ash Wednesday: A Call to Repentance and Community

Even now, says the LORD,
return to me with your whole heart,
with fasting, and weeping, and mourning;
Rend your hearts, not your garments,
and return to the LORD, your God.
For gracious and merciful is he,
slow to anger, rich in kindness,
and relenting in punishment.
Perhaps he will again relent
and leave behind him a blessing,
Offerings and libations
for the LORD, your God.

Blow the trumpet in Zion!
proclaim a fast,
call an assembly;
Gather the people,
notify the congregation;
Assemble the elders,
gather the children
and the infants at the breast;
Let the bridegroom quit his room
and the bride her chamber.
Between the porch and the altar
let the priests, the ministers of the LORD, weep,
And say, “Spare, O LORD, your people,
and make not your heritage a reproach,
with the nations ruling over them!
Why should they say among the peoples,
‘Where is their God?'”

Then the LORD was stirred to concern for his land
and took pity on his people.

Joel 2:12-18 – First Reading – Ash Wednesday

Our trek into the wilderness begins in earnest today with the observance of Ash Wednesday. Christians everywhere will show up to church to receive ashes on their foreheads as an outward sign that we are beginning a forty-day period of fasting, prayer, and almsgiving, all focused on restoring our broken relationships with God and each other. What are you giving up for Lent is a commonly heard phrase, as are the interminable ads for Red Lobster, and MickeyD’s Filet O’ Fish sandwich.

As I was exploring the readings for today’s liturgy, I was struck by the communal aspect of these calls to fasting and repentance: assemble, gather, proclaim, public proclamation, cessation of everyday activities, public expressions of sorrow and repentance. This should provide a source of comfort and strength for us as we step off into the wild places. We don’t take this journey alone; God walks with us.

Todays’ prayers are all about repenting and turning to God for forgiving. I’ve touched on the corporate aspect, but we can’t forget our individual sins. We do have to acknowledge our own individual part in turning away from God and contributing to the pain and suffering of the world. In the Confiteor, we begin with I confess that I have sinned, through my own fault, my thoughts, my words, my deeds, what I have or have not done. Even there we are not alone; we invoke the presence the Blessed Virgin Mary, angels and saints, and the community here with us to pray for us. There is a lovely prayer that the Iona community in Scotland uses in its daily morning worship that speaks to all of this.

Trusting in God’s forgiveness,
Let us in silence confess our failings
And acknowledge our part in the pain of the world. (a short silence)

Before God,
With the people of God,
I confess to turning away from God
In the ways I wound my life, the lives of others
And the life of the world.

Iona Community

It’s time to take that first step into the dangerous desert places. We will be challenged, we will be afraid, we will face deprivation and hardship, we may find pain. Whatever we find, we will walk together, holding each other up and offering encouragement and strength as a community of believers following the Way of Jesus.

Daring to Follow Jesus into the Wilderness

Forty days and forty nights you were fasting in the wild …

— George Hunt Smyttan (1856)

These are the first lines of the Lenten hymn, Forty Days and Forty Nights. We sing these words early in the season, often on the first Sunday of Lent as we prepare to hear an account of Jesus going into the wilderness following his baptism. The hymn promises, in typical Catholic fashion, that if we faithfully commit to suffering in the wilderness with Jesus, we may appear with him at the “eternal Eastertide.”

We often sing another hymn, The Glory of these Forty Days, that alludes to the numerous instances of biblical folk entering the wilderness: Moses, Elijah, Daniel, John the Baptist, and of course, Jesus.

For centuries, Jesus’ trek into the wilderness has set the tone for Christians’ Lenten observances. Some might dismiss this idea as those silly Catholics being all into their suffering and guilt. While a lot of Catholic practice seems to glorify suffering, this is much more.

The wilderness is not a hospitable, comfortable place where we can feel safe and validated. It’s a dangerous place full of uncertainty, sharp edges, and hazards that will trip us up if we’re not aware. Why would anyone in their right mind want to go there?! If you read between the lines of the biblical narratives, those illustrious folks apparently didn’t go willingly: Moses and Elijah were driven into the wild by angry political leaders, Daniel was thrown into a den of lions for not bowing down in worship to a conquering king. We don’t really know much about why John the Baptist went into the wilderness; we just know he walked out of the wilderness afire with a message of a coming redeemer. The Gospel accounts tell us Jesus was driven by the spirit out into the wild.

The wilderness is daunting, and most of us probably wouldn’t even think of going there without a little, ahem, encouragement. It’s a place of deprivation and hardship that most of us try to avoid at all costs. We have enough writings from the saints to know that the experience is not a pleasant one, although a large part of the spirituality of the early Irish Christian was shaped by the lives of those we call the Desert Fathers (and Mothers). More about that in a later reflection.

For now, let’s take a long, hard look at the wilderness places God might be driving us to explore. Let’s try to enter the wilderness of Lent expecting that, though it will be challenging and sometimes feel impossible, we will come through on the other side with renewed spirits eager to share in the joys of Easter.

Blessings on your Lenten journeys.