The Preacher’s Study
John W.B. Hill
Joel 2: 1-2, 12-17 or Isaiah 58: 1-12;
Psalm 51: 1-17;
2 Cor. 5: 20b - 6: 10;
Matt. 6: 1-6, 16-21.
The following reflection on the scriptures appointed for this day takes into account the origins of Ash Wednesday as the moment when, in the ancient Church, penitents began their journey of return to communion with the Church, a journey toward the Passover of the Lord. In the present life of the Church, we may anticipate that, for a variety of reasons, some of the baptized will have chosen to make an intentional Lenten journey of return to the way of Christ. Responding to God’s call to conversion, their intention will be publically acknowledged in the liturgy on this day. As Making Disciples observes, “When those who have been alienated from the gathered life of the Church return to a more intentional relationship with God and fellowship with the community, their presence is a powerful reminder of the Church’s call to on-going conversion. Their willingness to return, to forgive and to be forgiven, reveals our own need for the healing of divisions and for harmonizing the fragmented aspects of our lives.”
And so, for the sake of those making such an intentional Lenten journey, it will be important to draw out the suggestive power in the sign of ashes. It is the sign of the cross, applied to our forehead, as it was in baptism, but with ashes instead of chrism. Combined with the sentence that is recited as the ashes are applied, this sign evokes both the memory of our baptism into Christ and the shadow of our mortality, challenging us to consider how our lives will be judged.
Whichever option is selected for the first reading, it can be heard as God’s wake-up call to a people sleep-walking into catastrophe: “Blow the trumpet...sanctify a fast...” (Joel 2: 15-17); “Lift up your voice like a trumpet! Announce to my people their rebellion...” (Isaiah 58:1). This is very much our crisis today: we are sleepwalking into catastrophe. All the institutions in which we have put our trust — ecclesial, democratic, financial, regulatory, diplomatic — are failing. “The day of the Lord is coming, it is near — a day of darkness and gloom, a day of clouds and thick darkness!” (Joel 2: 1b-2a)
“Yet even now,” the opportunity of a return to God’s ways stands open, “for [God] is gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love...” (Joel 2: 12-13). Even now, we can return to the ways of the Lord: “If you remove...the pointing of the finger, the speaking of evil, if you offer your food to the hungry and satisfy the needs of the afflicted...then your light shall break forth like the dawn, and your healing spring up quickly...” (Isaiah 58: 8). “Why should it be said among the peoples, ‘Where is their God?’” (Joel 2: 17)
However, returning must not to be confused with trying harder. Returning is a movement of humble trust, opening ourselves again to all that God longs to make of our lives. For it is through Christ and in Christ that God will bring us to the fulfilment of our human destiny: “For our sake [God] made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God” (2 Corinthians 6: 10). Jesus has pioneered a new kind of humanity which is immune to the rivalries and resentments that are poisoning our world; he persevered, through the very heart of darkness, to open the path to a better world. Following the way of Jesus is our only hope; so what we have to do is keep returning to his way.
That is why the desire of even one baptised person to enter the season of Lent as an intentional journey of return is such a gift and sign to the whole community of faith.
The Gospel reading from the Sermon on the Mount (together with the reading from the book of Isaiah, if that is chosen — see verses 2 to 5) reminds us how tempted we are to avoid returning, even using our religion itself to avoid the way of Jesus. He warns those who spend Lent trying to be more religious that they are settling for a hollow reward. “Truly I tell you, they have their reward,” he says. In other words, they have missed the one reward worth having.
Returning to the way of Jesus, then, must be our real agenda for these forty days. But this is no guarantee of a more serene and ordered life; following Jesus may bring us into very turbulent experiences, as it did for the Apostle Paul (2 Corinthians 6: 4-10). That should come as no surprise, however, in a world that is sleep-walking into catastrophe.
And so, accepting the sign of ashes must mean acknowledging that our lives will be judged according to whom or what we trust: the institutions of this world which are failing, or the way of Jesus which is the way of the cross.
John Hill is a presbyter in the Anglican Church of Canada (ACC). A member of APLM Council, John served as chair for the Primate’s Task Force on Hospitality, Christian Initiation and Discipleship Formation in the ACC. The work of this group led to the development of ‘Becoming the Story We Tell.’
 Making Disciples, the Canadian Anglican catechumenal rites: www.anglican.ca/wp-content/uploads/Making-Disciples.pdf. See ‘Ash Wednesday: Calling to the Life of Conversion’, page 44; compare the Episcopal Book of Occasional Services, 2003, ‘Enrollment for Lenten Preparation’, page 141.