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Finding Joy(!) in Lent: Ash Wednesday (evening)

Wednesday, February 14, 2024 (evening)
Joint service with The Church of St. Columba, Waterloo
Joel 2:1-2, 12-17; 2 Corinthians 5:20b-6:10; Matthew 6:1-6, 16-21

I’ve gotten in the routine of making our ashes with the Sunday School kids on the Sunday before Lent. Last year, as we were burning the palms outside I tried to explain Lent to them. “It’s a serious time,” I said. I paused and asked “do you know what ‘serious’ means?” “No,” they replied… I started naming Swedish movies from the 1950s and ’60s, but none of those five year olds had yet seen any of them…

So finally I came up with something that made a bit of sense: ‘Serious’ is like paying attention in class. It’s different from playing at recess. That sunk in a bit.

Then another analogy came to mind: We’re serious when we’re baking a cake: it’s hard work following the recipe: measuring ingredients, chopping or stirring things, watching the oven (and resisting the urge to eat the batter). That’s serious. But we do it — and some people even find joy in it — because eventually it leads to a big cake and a big party. And that models something that we see in the Church calendar: Lent and Easter go together; they’re not meant to be understood on their own. And the same thing goes for Advent and Christmas. It’s not always easy in the moment, say, cleaning the house as you prepare to host family for Christmas. But when it’s over you realize that you’re the better for having done that deep clean.

Over the next several weeks you’ll sometimes hear one of the prefaces for the Eucharistic prayer that says that God calls us to “cleanse [our] hearts and to prepare with joy for the paschal feast.” To prepare with joy. In Lent(!). We’re not talking about extremism or fundamentalism, but more like a healthy balance (which is very ‘Anglican’ in ethos, when you think of it). And it’s reflected in the readings: Jesus talks about not exaggerating our piety or looking overly decrepit. Or Paul plays with words and images: “as dying, and see — we are alive,” and “as sorrowful, yet always rejoicing.” Lent can be a great gift, in encouraging us to make some temporary changes, within a supportive community, to regain some balance in our lives. And none of this for its own sake, but to create the space attentiveness to Jesus, and specifically to his journey through death and into new life. We especially follow Jesus in Holy Week (most especially the three great days of Maundy Thursday, Good Friday, and the Easter Vigil). It’s intense; it’s a marathon. So think of Lent as our opportunity to train for it; to establish a healthy routine.

There have been a few jokes over the last few weeks, arising from people’s noting that this year Ash Wednesday occurs on Valentine’s Day. It’s a bit of a conundrum, especially if you’re giving up chocolate. But it presents for us the reality of living in this creative tension of ‘preparing with joy’ for the feast of Easter. Think of the very person of Jesus, who was known for being stern and prayerful. But he also knew how to party and get on with others. And he got in trouble with the authorities and experts no matter what he did.

Thinking back to the kids helping prepare our ashes, I think the best learning that happened was actually something that one of the children mentioned, and taught me. We had gotten to the end of the activity, and the ashes had been stirred with whisks, and pounded with a potato masher, and then filtered through a strainer. And finally ground down to a fine powder, we were spooning the ashes into a little clay jar to be used in the liturgy. Gazing at a container that was not unlike a ceramic planter, and the ashes resembling black earth, a four year-old girl shouted “It’s like planting flowers!” And that describes it perfectly: Lent is about planting seeds. Seeds that quietly do their thing discretely buried in the soil of the season, and they sprout and blossom at Easter.

Jesus said something about that, once, didn’t he? “Unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain; but if it dies, it bears much fruit.” So take seriously the recommended observances of Lent: self-examination, penitence, prayer, fasting, almsgiving, and reading and meditating on scripture. They’re named, but not really spelled out. It’s up to you to find what you’re being particularly called to, and what exactly that will look like these forty days. But whatever you do (or whatever you fast from doing), you are planting a seed, and then called to water it throughout the season. The result being a clearer understanding of what is at the heart of our faith: dying and rising. We are naturally wired to avoid pain and discomfort; to deny the reality of death. At the same time we’re often so unimaginative and sullen as to not trust in the reality of the surprising new Easter life that God promises.

So thanks be to God for this season of Lent, with its seriousness and with its joy, and how it compels us to confront both the truth of our frailty and brokenness, AND the truth of our beauty and blessedness. Jesus has transcended those contradictions on the Cross: “For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.”

So I wish you a holy Lent. And I even wish you a happy Lent. Prepare with joy for the Paschal feast. [Some have observed that the Lenten season of 40 days is approximately a 10th of the year, and so a ‘tithe.’ By letting Lent be different, by living somewhat differently in this time, we’re giving a portion of the year over to God.] I trust that what God wants to do is open our eyes and hearts to the miracle of Easter. Easter is the party. Easter is the cake. So God be with you as you follow the serious, but also quite possibly joyful recipe these 40 days.

© 2024 The Rev’d Matthew Kieswetter