©Holly Lyman Antolini
Lections: Isaiah 58:1-12; Ps. 103; 2 Cor. 5:20b-6:10; Matt. 6:1-6,16-21
Bless the LORD, O my soul, and all that is within me, bless his holy Name. Redeem my life from the grave; crown me with your mercy and loving-kindness. AMEN.
We entreat you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God!” So begins our reading from Paul’s Second Letter to the Corinthians for Ash Wednesday. It might be the clarion call to a holy Lent. “Be reconciled to God.”
Lent is the season – of all our seasons of the liturgical year – that invites us to take a good look at our sin, the things that separate us from God, our tendency to seek our own will instead of the will of God. Here’s how the Catechism of our Book of Common Prayer puts it: Sin is “seeking of our own will instead of the will of God, thus distorting our relationship with God, with other people, and with all creation.” [p. 848, Book of Common Prayer]
Despite the legacy of middle-class Victorian mores, sin isn’t sexual peccadilloes or the simple enjoyment of our bodies, though our bodies are certainly implicated in the ways we get separated from God. Our bodies are as much a means of being intimate with God as they are a liability in that intimacy. So are our minds, and indeed our hearts. No: sin is much, much more than what we do with our bodies. The 12-step programs have the most vivid description of it. They call it, “self-will run riot.” When I ramp up into a rant at someone I love over a trivial incident or castigate them because they put the juice back in the wrong place in the fridge or left the milk out on the counter, my self-will has taken over. When I run up my credit card bill beyond what I can pay each month, buying things I don’t need, my self-will has taken over. When I work too much or drink too much or eat too much (or, on the contrary, starve my body when it needs nutrients), my self-will has taken over. When I refuse to forgive someone who has injured me and instead dig into my own bitterness and resentment, my self-will has taken over. When I persistently ignore the ways in which my material comfort may be secured at the cost of someone else’s imprisonment in ignorance, poverty or violent conditions, or at the cost of our long-term supply of natural resources, clean air, clean water and species survival, my self-will has taken over. I have forgotten what God intended in creating me. I have lost touch with the love of God for me and have sought a false “love” in things that hurt me and/or others. I have placed my confidence in things that endow me with false sense of power and a false sense of self-respect. I have certainly lost touch with the capacity to regard others with the respectful and loving eyes of God, sacrificing THEIR dignity and in the process, my own. I have lost my sense of my own proportion. I have gotten alienated from my best self and the world around me.
So Lent is the season in which we seek to understand our sin, our “distortion of relationship” with God, other people, and indeed, all of Creation. It is the season in which we try to retrieve our appropriate sense of our proportion. It is the season in which we practice returning to “right relationship” with God. We do this in Lent as a preparation to experience with Christ his arrest and trial, his Passion and Crucifixion in the liturgies of Holy Week, and to be ready for the intense joy of his Resurrection in the Feasts of Easter Vigil and Easter morning.
In anticipation of that greatest of all sacraments, the Feast of the Resurrection, the season of Lent invites us into the death of Christ in order that we may find the “new life” that is promised in Christ’s resurrection. Lent invites us to see our separation from God and each other so that we can be reconciled, reconnected to God and to each other and to this fraught and beautiful world we live in. It is only by this frightening path, this giving up of “self-will run riot,” that we can “be reconciled to God.” The Second Letter to the Corinthians describes this movement from death to life as such as central part of “being reconciled to God” that I’m puzzled as to why the Lectionary begins at Verse 5:20, instead of back at Verse 14. Here’s what’s missing: “14For the love of Christ urges us on, because we are convinced that one has died for all; therefore all have died. 15And Christ died for all, so that [we] who live might live no longer for [ourselves], but for him who died and was raised for [us]. From now on, therefore, we regard no one from a human point of view; even though we once knew Christ from a human point of view, we know him no longer in that way. 17So if anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation: everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new! 18All this is from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ, and has given us the ministry of reconciliation; 19that is, in Christ God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting [our] trespasses against [us], and entrusting the message of reconciliation to us. 20So we are ambassadors for Christ, since God is making his appeal through us; we entreat you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God. [2 Cor. 5:16-20, pronouns changed & underlining mine]
How different if we see that the priority is that Christ has ALREADY reconciled us to God, “not counting our trespasses against us!” And that we are simply submitting ourselves to “death in Christ” – “dead to sin and alive to God in Christ Jesus,” as Paul writes in the Letter to the Romans; dead to our self-will and alive in God’s much more generous and forgiving will – to avail ourselves of that reconciliation, that “new creation.” [6:11] “Death,” you say? Isn’t that imagery a little extreme when it comes to the giving up of self-will? Well, ask any of us who are vulnerable to “self-will run riot,” how hard it is to give it up, and to ask forgiveness for it! A million tiny deaths and sometimes some very large ones indeed.
And how different when we see that, being reconciled to God, we are thereby entrusted with the MESSAGE OF RECONCILIATION, indeed the MINISTRY OF RECONCILIATION, ourselves. All those trials and tribulations Paul enumerates in our Second Corinthians passage today, from afflictions to imprisonments to hunger; all those swings between ill repute and good repute, between sorrow & rejoicing, even between dying and yet, being alive: these are all simply part of that “dying into Christ” – the giving up of the self-will that seeks to dominate and control – that Paul sees as THE route into intimacy with God, mere way-stations on the pilgrimage to being reconciled to God, empowerments to become ambassadors of reconciliation in the foreign territory of sin.
So here we are on Ash Wednesday, being invited to “a holy Lent,” to being “reconciled with God,” and so doing to engage our ministry of reconciliation.
And the first step of that return to right relationship, that retrieval of our sense of proportion, begins with acknowledging that “we are dust, and unto dust we shall return.” Not just acknowledging it intellectually, but kneeling in a posture of submission and receiving upon our foreheads a cross of ashes made from the palms of last Palm Sunday’s commemoration of Jesus’ Crucifixion, right in the same place where the anointing oil of our baptism confirmed that we have been “marked as Christ’s own, forever,” as a reminder of our fragility and mortality and also at the very same time a reminder of Christ’s enduring, overcoming love for us [p. 308, Book of Common Prayer] Then, after the Imposition of Ashes, we are invited to the rail again in the sacrifice of the Eucharist, which intensifies this reminder of Christ’s self-offering love for us – essential to all amendment of life, essential to our capacity to bear the knowledge of our sin and our mortality. We are always invited back into the circle of God’s love, back into the Body of Christ from which we may have separated ourselves, back from the alienation of “self-will run riot,” back into right relationship with God.
It is these twin dimensions of self-awareness that lie at the root of our Lenten practice. There’s the awareness of our mortality and vulnerability to sin and separation from God, the limits of our capacity to control our lives and the tendency to want to claim more control than we truly can manage, grinding ourselves and others up in the machinery of our self-will. That’s the dust part. But equally important along with it is the anointed part, the belonging-to-Christ-forever part. The part where grace of Jesus Christ the Risen One can redeem us – save us, SALVAGE us – from the limits of our mortality and make healing and wholeness possible even in the most seemingly irredeemable situations.
These two essential aspects of “right relationship” with God – our limits and God’s never-failing longing to offer us the power of grace – are what power a ministry of reconciliation. Without a real sense of our own limits, our culpability, and our frailty, our attempts at the work of reconciliation risk being powered by self-will, a false assumption of our capacity. Without real humility and fellow-feeling, our attempts may work alienation, not reconciliation. At the same time, without a powerful sense of God’s grace to help in time of need, we can languish under a conviction of guilt or founder in our own sense of shame or vulnerability, or simply freeze in fear. [Hebrews: 4:6]
One more thing. Much of what we do in Lent, including the General Confession we say in worship every Sunday, gives us opportunities to practice reconciliation. If you want ideas, see the handout in your bulletin, “Renewal in the Season of Lent @ St. James’s.” Among other opportunities for study or alms-giving, you will find a small article about the “Rite of Reconciliation” in our Book of Common Prayer. Sometimes we find ourselves burdened with a sense of sin and separation from God that can seem unrelenting and even paralyzing. Perhaps “we have memories that sear our conscience, by they of a particular incident or of a chain of events that set off a kind of tsunami of sin in some aspect of our life.” Perhaps we are locked into “a recurring and damaging pattern of behavior.” Perhaps we suffer “a residual experience of self-loathing or shame.” If any of this is true for you, if you can’t seem to relinquish a grievous choice you made in the past, or are shaken by one you are in the midst of now, or if you are“burdened by a tedious repetitive sin,” consider making a time to meet with me and discuss the possibility of engaging in the sacrament of reconciliation. “You may need this very explicit assurance of your forgiveness, of your being liberated from an internal prison of condemnation.” [Adapted from Br. Curtis Almquist, Reconciliation: Preparing for the Sacrament,www.SSJE.org/monasticwisdom]
I invite you, this Lent, not to further burden your self-will by simply piling Lenten observances upon yourself, but to seek some thing or things you can do to let GO of your self-will, to ease back from the need to control everything, to let yourself feel both your own mortality and God’s great embracing desire for your flourishing, to help yourself “be reconciled to God,” so that God’s loving desire for reconciliation can shine through you to others. If you don’t find what you’re looking for on the “Renewal in the Season of Lent” sheet in your bulletin, speak to me. Let’s see if we can discern or devise a renewing Lenten practice for you!