"Send out Your light and Your truth, that they may lead me, and bring me to Your holy hill and to Your dwelling." Psalm 43:3

Friday, February 15, 2013

Acknowledging Our Wretchedness

Almighty and everlasting God, 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, for ever and ever.  Amen.
~Collect for Ash Wednesday, BCP

I attended the Ash Wednesday liturgy at my church this week.  I make a very conscious effort to live into the Church year, observing the seasonal feasts and fasts, and so I generally look forward to Ash Wednesday.  It's difficult for me to imagine beginning my Lenten journey without this very public and clear inauguration, with its call "to the observance of a holy Lent ... to make a right beginning of repentance..."  And yet it's not an easy service, even for one accustomed to it.  The opening collect of the liturgy doesn't dance around the issue: this is a time of "lamenting our sins and acknowledging our wretchedness".  We then read the appointed Old Testament reading from Joel, chapter 2:

Blow a trumpet in Zion, and sound an alarm on my holy mountain!
Let all the inhabitants of the land tremble,
For the day of the LORD is coming; surely it is near.
A day of darkness and gloom, a day of clouds and thick darkness ...
"Yet even now," declares the LORD,
"Return to me with all your heart, 
And with fasting, weeping, and mourning;
And rend your heart and not your garments."

Not exactly the way to pack 'em into the pews!  And yet, I do love this liturgy.  It is honest, and it helps me to live more honestly.  It does not tell me what I want to hear, but rather what I know to be true within my own depraved heart and my own weak body.  After the invitation to a holy Lent, the priest prays the following over the ashes to be imposed:

Almighty God, you have created us out of the dust of the earth: Grant that these ashes may be to us a sign of our mortality and penitence, that we may remember that it is only by your gracious gift that we are given everlasting life; through Jesus Christ our Savior. Amen.

On Ash Wednesday, and throughout Lent, the Church is called to remember that it is only through Christ that we are raised to life in glory.  By ourselves, we are truly wretched, and without hope.  And even now, we who have been born anew in Christ remain here in this vale of tears.  Though we do experience joy in Christ in this life, we still look ever forward to that place where we "shall know fully, just as (we) have been fully known" and where "there shall no longer be any death; there shall no longer be any mourning, or crying, or pain; the first things have passed away."  But we do well to remember that we are not there yet.

I have always been one to look for the beauty in life,and I do believe it is real and ever present, a gift of God to His children.  But due to some life circumstances in my family over this past year, I have become more personally aware that this is also true of pain.  Pain is real, and deep, and ever present in the world.  It touches every human in ways that are often difficult to comprehend, and sometimes there is no healing, at least not in full.  No one is exempt; pain and suffering are as inevitable as death itself.  Christians are not being helpful if we refuse to acknowledge this reality.  (A case in point: K-LOVE Christian radio.  God bless them for the good they do, but honestly I just can only take so much of "the positive alternative".  And it's precisely because it is all positive, all the time; I find that lack of proportion unreal, even (unintentionally) dishonest.  "God is so good and Jesus loves you, so turn that frown upside-down!  No more pain, confusion, or sorrow!"  I'm sorry, but that is not real life, even for the Christian.)  But on Ash Wednesday, the Church does acknowledge this reality.  We acknowledge our sin and failure, our frailty and brokenness; we acknowledge our mortality.

Sorrows are inevitable, but the Christian can embrace suffering, knowing that Christ Jesus has already embraced all sorrow and suffering, even unto death.  In this, we draw near to Him and He draws near to us. And even in Lent we live in joyful hope and expectation, looking forward to Easter morning in forty days, itself but a foretaste of the full joy that awaits us on the Eighth Day, when all will be made new.

But we are not there yet.

Peace, and may you be blessed with a holy Lent.


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