A group of seminarians, mostly commuter students glad to catch up with one another, chatted on their way into worship on a Wednesday morning in February. The sun shone on their earnest faces, and once they settled into seats in the high-ceilinged chapel, they beamed happily at being together in worship on a particularly holy day. That mood remained as they received the cross of ashes and the reminder that life is short.
A professor ascended the steps to the pulpit and began to preach. “You look so pleased to be here, smiling at yourselves." His tone was heated. “Don't you know this is a day to repent?”
Ouch. Faces fell. There is a line, apparently, between appearing repentant and actually repenting. True repentance is not so radiant. True repentance is a determined turning toward God, with full clarity about how and what we need to change. That reality is spare and deep and uncomfortably introspective for most of us.
Isaiah 58 points to and challenges the same exterior piety that the seminary professor condemned. In these verses, God speaks clearly about the hypocritical choice to be publicly faithful while oppressing the marginalized around us. God does not value our fasting if we continue to commit acts and participate in systems that harm other people.
Ash Wednesday is complicated. We might appreciate the reminder of our mortality or grieve it. We might know going in what we need to rectify or find ourselves—like the seminarians—called out, either from the outside or in our own selves. This is a good day to do it, to clarify our status with the person we see in the mirror, then confess it all to God.
O Lord, I know, and I know you know, the things that need to change. Help me to be the person you expect for the rest of the life you have given me. Amen.
The season of Lent is now upon us, a time of inward examination that begins on Ash Wednesday. We search ourselves and ask God to search us, so that we can follow God more completely. This examination, however, can become a cause for despair if we do not approach it with God’s everlasting mercy and faithfulness in mind. Although the Flood was a result of judgment, God also saved the faithful and established a covenant with them. The psalmist seeks to learn God’s ways, all the while realizing that he has fallen short and must rely on God’s grace. For Christians, baptism functions as a symbol of salvation and a reminder of God’s covenant faithfulness—not because the water is holy but because God is holy and merciful.
Read Genesis 9:8-17. When have you, after a season of loss, experienced new life? What was the sign of that new life?
Read Psalm 25:1-10. How are you experiencing God’s steadfast love and faithfulness in your life? How do you offer thanks?
Read 1 Peter 3:18-22. When have you sacrificed something for the sake of someone else?
Read Mark 1:9-15. Recall a “wilderness” experience in your own life. What helped you to move through that experience? What were the spiritual gifts of that experience?
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