Today we gather together to begin the season of Lent. Soon we will be receiving ashes on our foreheads. The ashes are a visible recognition of our own mortality and our own need for repentance. Lent is a journey, hopefully a journey of spiritual reflection and change. But repentance is not the same as guilt or shame. It is easy to feel shameful or guilty, they require nothing new from us. Repentance is a change of heart and mind. As we move into the season of Lent we are looking for that change within ourselves. Today we are offered the space to admit our own vulnerability without shame.
On the surface the imposition of ashes can seem to be in contradiction to today’s Gospel message. Jesus warns against public displays of piety and charity. He even says, “When you fast, put oil on your head and wash your face.” Three times Jesus warns against being like the hypocrites, he warns his listeners against praying and fasting and giving alms for the wrong reasons. And it is for that very reason that we have this particular Gospel every Ash Wednesday. How we spend Lent can easily become a point of pride for us. It is easy for our Lenten disciplines to become a sort of competition, or 40 day endurance race. The ashes can quickly become a point of pride or even embarrassment. I used to tell people what I was giving up for Lent and then spend 40 days complaining about how hard it was. But I was missing the point, and I had failed to listen to Jesus’ warnings.
All of what Jesus says in today’s Gospel can be summed up in his final statement “Where your treasure is there your heart will be also.” What exactly do we treasure? I believe this is a harder question than we like to admit. We know what we are supposed to treasure, we know that we are supposed to say that things like money, recognition and power are all things that we don’t want. Even if they are the very things that we choose to pursue, we know we are never supposed to admit that those are the things that we truly treasure. We can even fool ourselves about our desires and priorities. The truth is, to really admit, even to ourselves, where our heart is would be to expose it, make it vulnerable to criticism and pain. So maybe one of the best things we can do during this season of lent is determine exactly what are treasures really are. Where do we keep our hearts?
And why does it matter? We give our hearts away to so many things that by the time we get to God, what is left? We seem to rely on everything but God to love us. In our constant search for wholeness we give our love away to things like our careers, our wealth, our possessions, our hobbies. We look to fulfillment through food, or diets, through self-improvement programs or spiritual fads. We distract ourselves with Facebook or television. None of these things are, in themselves bad, but bit by bit we give our hearts to all of these meaningless and temporary things that we wind up having almost nothing left to give to God or to each other.
And so, thank God once a year we gather to speak the truth of how we piece out our hearts, how we sin and fall short, how we rely on every single other thing to love us – everything but God. We gather here today to be reminded that we are dust and to dust we shall return. We have broken our hearts into a million little pieces, and now we gather here to begin the journey of gathering those pieces up again so that we can return them to their maker. We are created and given life by God’s divine love. And it is that divine love that will restore our broken hearts to wholeness if we let it. Of course, we do not need the season of Lent to do this, but it helps. Whenever we gather up the pieces of our hearts and offer them to God for healing - that is repentance. That is what Lent is about – returning to the only place where we can find wholeness, the divine Love of God.