The sacrifice acceptable to God is a broken spirit; a broken and contrite heart, O God, you will not despise. ~Psalm 51:17
While living in Chicago, I volunteered as a chaplain at Interfaith House, a respite facility that provided care for homeless men and women who were recovering from an illness or injury. One late-winter day, I led a simple Ash Wednesday liturgy for the shelter residents, following the Christian tradition of marking the forehead with ashes as a reminder of our mortality and a call to repentance for sin. It was a very traditional service, quite ordinary really – until I began to distribute the ashes.
As each one came forward to receive the ashes, I was caught off guard by their demeanor. At most Ash Wednesday services that I’ve attended, there is a heaviness hanging between us, a subtle resistance to the distasteful Lenten reminder that we are sinful people. We repeat the words of repentance, we hear “to dust you shall return” and give our intellectual consent to that fact, but our slumped shoulders and bowed heads reflect our discomfort.
Instead, at Interfaith House heads were held high, shoulders squared, eyes meeting eyes without embarrassment. There was an air of quiet contentment, an almost palpable relief as each one stepped forward for the ashes. These men understood that they were dust – the world told them in so many big and small ways that they were dirt to be stepped over or shaken off. But rather than being put off by another reminder, the Ash Wednesday liturgy seemed to provide a space where they were accepted as they were, where in fact they were supposed to be dust. And further, Ash Wednesday declared to them that they are equals with those who would step over them or cross the street to avoid them – equally vulnerable, equally sinful, and equally in need of God’s grace.
We are all equally in need of that divine grace, aren’t we? The season of Lent is a reminder to us of both the need, and the grace. The season is a reminder of our neediness, our dependence on God for our very life and breath. It is also a call to repentance, a time to acknowledge our brokenness and our selfishness, and lay them before God. Lent reminds that we need God’s grace.
The season of Lent is also an assurance of that same grace. It is a time when, like the residents of Interfaith House, we can let go of our tough-guy act and admit that we are weak. Tired. Frightened. Confused by our world and our lives. In Lent, we do not need to hide behind our masks. We are not driven, in Lent, by the need to look competent and confident. Perfectionism has no place in Lent. The grace of Lent is precisely that God accepts us as we are. Just as we are. Lent allows us to stop striving, and rely fully on God’s grace.
There are many reminders around us today of our need for God, individually and collectively. Our hearts cry out at injustices and violence in our world. Our lives are often filled with tension and stress. We need God.
And we need Lent, which assures us that for every reminder of our need, there is also a reminder of God’s grace. Sunshine streaming through the clouds. A friend’s smile. A moment of calm. God’s grace surrounding us.
So as we receive the ashes, receive with them God’s grace, new every morning. Those are the gifts of Lent – both our neediness, and God’s grace to meet our need.
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