During the Ash Wednesday service we are called to “the observance of a Holy Lent, by self-examination and repentance; by prayer, fasting and self denial; and by reading and meditating on God’s Holy Word” (BCP 265). While this recited commitment is part of a singular and particular liturgy, it is also an ongoing spiritual event lived out in the physical reality of our lives.
We commit to immersing ourselves deeply in daily prayer, in “fasting,” and by separating ourselves from any mental, physical or spiritual obstacle that may prevent us from progressing on our journey to God. Thomas Merton in his work, Seasons of Celebration, writes, “The purpose of Lent is not only expiation, to satisfy the divine justice, but above all a preparation to rejoice in His love. And this preparation consists in receiving the gift of His mercy—a gift which we receive in so far as we open our hearts to it, casting out what cannot remain in the same room with mercy.” Merton relies heavily on the Gospel of John and Christ’s own words, “every dead branch will be purged, while every good branch will be pruned so as to bring forth more fruit (John 15:1).”
Merton suggests that while fasting and self-denial are vital expressions of Lenten spirituality, what matters most is the fruit of those practices, our faithful and Spirit-empowered efforts to share the fullness of God’s life and love in our broken world.
Perhaps there is a small likelihood of our doing so. But in any case, penance is conceived by the Church less as a burden than as a liberation. It is only a burden to those who take it up unwillingly. Love makes it light and happy. And that is another reason why Ash Wednesday is filled with the lightness of love. (94)
He continues, “In laying upon us the light cross of ashes, the Church desires to take off our shoulders all other heavy burdens—the crushing load of worry and obsessive guilt, the dead weight of our own self-love. We should not take upon ourselves a 'burden' of penance and stagger into Lent as if we were Atlas, carrying the whole world on his shoulders.” Rather, we are called to release all that is self-focused, and the willing and growing in dependence, trust, and faith in God to the point of truly enjoying and feasting on his mercy.
If we’re being honest, there is much about life to fill a heavy heart. Even if our days go well, only a half-step away a family member or neighbor suffers deeply. Our congregation, our communities, our world, especially—everywhere we look is brokenness, struggle, and pain. Heavy pain on the outside, heavy hearts on the inside. It’s not easy to “let go and let God,” as they say, but this is where the disciplines and practices of Lent are so valuable, for it is those habits that will lead you closer to God. By now, we’ve washed the ashes from our foreheads, but the reality of God’s mercy is ours to claim every moment. Retrace the imprint of those ashes on your forehead. (The same imprint, by the way, marked on your forehead with oil at confirmation when you were “sealed as Christ’s own forever). Meditate on this image, this amazing spiritual gift that is ours to assume through Lent and own for the rest of our lives: “In laying upon us the light cross of ashes, the Church desires to take off our shoulders all other heavy burdens.”
In laying upon us the “light cross of ashes,” Christ set us free.
Peace in Christ,
Father Bill Burk†