10 February 2016

Every year, the Lectionary gives us the same readings for Ash Wednesday. However, this year we have the additional perspective of Luke’s Gospel, since this is the year of Luke. That means that, as we deal with our mortality and sinfulness, we are facing not just “spiritual” issues, but also the practical issues of justice and liberation in our own hearts and in the world. This makes the Ash Wednesday worship a potentially world-changing moment in our year.

May our repentance be authentic, and our transformation be deep as we worship this Ash Wednesday.

READINGS:
Joel 2:1-2, 12-17: A proclamation warning that the Day of the Lord has arrived, along with a call for God’s people to repent, rending their hearts not their clothes, and to submit to God in fasting and prayer, in the hopes that God will show mercy.
OR Isaiah 58:1-12: True fasting requires repentance and justice, for God is not pleased with fasting that is simply an outward observance divorced from works of justice and mercy.

Psalm 51:1-17: Attributed to David after his adultery with Bathsheba is exposed by Nathan the prophet, this Psalm is a plea for God’s mercy and compassion. The writer’s prayer is that God will have mercy, will teach him God’s ways, and will restore God’s Spirit to him.

2 Corinthians 5:20b-6:10: Paul explains the suffering he and other apostles have endured in order to proclaim God’s appeal for repentance, and God’s offer of salvation.

Matthew 6:1-6, 16-21: Jesus teaches that fasting, giving and praying are best observed in quiet, hidden ways, and not in the showy manner of the “hypocrites”. When we practice our spiritual disciplines in Jesus’ way, then God, who sees what we do in secret, will give us what is due.

REFLECTIONS ON THEME:
This year, Luke’s perspective on sin, salvation and forgiveness, offers a unique way to engage with the Ash Wednesday theme. Although there are no readings in the Ash Wednesday Lectionary (the readings are the same every year), we can still allow Luke’s particular voice to speak through this significant moment of worship. The readings call us to repentance, faithfulness, and the true spirituality of practical service, self-giving, and peace-making. Both the Joel reading and the Psalm call for repentance when we are confronted with God’s Reign and God’s conviction. Both the Isaiah reading and Matthew’s Gospel call for true spiritual practice which is not just outward observance, but authentic and transforming. Aligned with this, the Corinthians passage describes the cost that the first apostles were willing to pay in order to call others into this life of repentance and transformation. The themes that emerge from these readings, then, are repentance, authentic spirituality, and a commitment to justice. In the year of Luke, the theme of liberation aligns strongly with these thoughts. For Luke, salvation is liberation both from the oppression of sin and from the oppression of injustice, and salvation is viewed as participation in God’s Reign. This means that, in this year’s Ash Wednesday observance, the call of repentance is not just a “spiritual” one, dealing with abstract ideas of “sin”. Rather, the call is to lives of authentic, practical liberation in which we are freed from what oppresses us, both within us and without, and in which we become liberators for those around us.

CONNECTING WITH LIFE:
Global Application:
It seems to have become a normal practice to deny responsibility or to avoid acknowledging when our actions are destructive or harmful. Little true repentance has followed the economic crisis, a lot of work is being done to deny human responsibility for climate change, and the broken systems that burden developing countries with debt that outweighs whatever aid they receive are not easily acknowledged in the corridors of power. Yet, before we can possibly begin to create the world we long for, we must admit our sin – our greed, our carelessness, our ignorance, our self-centredness, our idolatry, our consumption. Ash Wednesday confronts us with a call to face the oppression in our own hearts, and in the systems of our world, and to be those who work for justice. As followers of Christ, we are called to be liberators, but this may not mean that we have to become activists or politicians or freedom fighters. Rather, it means that we commit to confronting and conquering the ways we are tempted to oppress others, and it means that within our sphere of influence, we practice justice in small, hidden, but significant ways – generous giving, just employment and remuneration for those who work for us, compassion and solidarity with those who suffer. The symbol of ash, which reminds us of our mortality can seem to devalue our physical human lives, but, in fact, it does the opposite. It reminds us that we are more than just dust and ash, but that all human beings are divinely created and eternally valuable. As such, then, Ash Wednesday calls us to honour and celebrate our authentic humanity and to “live up” to our best selves, and not be oppressed by our worst selves, both within our hearts, and in the systems we have created.

Local Application:
Ash Wednesday is usually focussed around confession and repentance. In the light of Luke’s perspective this year, we are called to recognise that our repentance is not just about internal, “spiritual” sins, but also about our compliance in the small injustices of our world – our acts of greed, selfishness, lust, exploitation, arrogance, unkindness, lack of consideration, and defensiveness. Essentially this is about our willingness to do the difficult work of self-examination, honest evaluation, and willing transformation of our worst selves. In every relationship and in every community, conflict and suffering arises from these broken parts of ourselves – as in David’s case. But, when we are willing to embrace the cross of sacrificial service and hold ourselves accountable to the values of God’s Reign, we become like Paul – proclaimers of God’s grace to those around us. In Lent, of course, this work of repentance and transformation is done through the disciplines about which Jesus teaches in Matthew’s Gospel – giving (which challenges our greed), prayer (which challenges our hunger for power), and fasting (which challenges our lustful, gratification of our basest desires). The miracle of the Ash Wednesday practice is that, as we do this work, our lives reflect the life and power of God, but also, we contribute, through these small actions, to making the world a more just place.

RESOURCES FOR WORSHIP:
Prayers:
The Wisdom of Ash
Dust
Skeletons

Hymn Suggestions:
Blow Ye The Trumpet, Blow
Jesus, Priceless Treasure
Just As I Am
No Sack Cloth
Lord Have Mercy (Link to YouTube video)
Change My Heart, O God (Link to YouTube video)
Show Us The Ancient Paths (Link to YouTube video)
In Your Mercy, Lord

Liturgy:
A Liturgy for Ash Wednesday

Video Suggestions:
Lenten Reflection
Psalm 51
True Fasting

Additional Resources:
Dancing with the Light (a Lenten journey in worship and preaching)
Living in the Promised Land (another Lenten journey in worship and preaching)

 

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