Welcome! At midnight tonight begins the Season of Lent, a time of forty days leading up to Easter. It is a time of prayer and reflection on the meaning of Jesus’ presence in our lives and in the world; a time to look within ourselves to see what needs changing and healing as we seek to follow Jesus more willingly and more completely.
In Bible times when people sinned and were sorry they would sometimes put ashes on their heads as a symbol for their sin, and as a way of saying they were sorry for doing wrong. Sin is when people act and think as if they don’t care about God or about themselves or other people or about God’s world.
Tonight, we too will use the symbol of ashes to express our sadness about sin. The ashes come from the palms we used last Palm Sunday as we welcomed Jesus into Jerusalem. They remind us that Jesus is King and that we are God’s creation of the earth. They also remind us of new life, from which new plants grow and abundant life comes. The ashes are mixed with oil, which in Bible times was a sign of God’s favor and God’s healing. –– Sara Webb Phillips
There’s no evading the odd fact that Matthew 6:1–6 and 16–(18)21 seems to be an anti-Ash Wednesday text assigned for Ash Wednesday. The passage apparently warns us away from every kind of visible piety. In order to live out Jesus’ injunctions everyone should stop at a restroom on the way out of Ash Wednesday services and wash off those ashes. Matthew’s gospel more than any other is a manual for discipleship—piety is done secretly; charity is done openly. How do we relate the appropriate concern with liturgical faithfulness to the warnings against showiness and hypocrisy? –– David Bartlett
In the Hebrew Bible, fasting and repentance are often prescribed in times of suffering and danger or under threat of such concerns. Here the threat is not attack by a human army, but the “day of the LORD” and the destruction and terror it brings.
. . . Joel calls for fasting, but in a redefined form. He calls upon the people to return to God with fasting and repentance, but rather than rending their clothes as a sign of that repentance, they are asked to “rend your hearts and not your clothing.” –– Jonathan Lawrence
2 Corinthians 5:20b––6:10
Just as the psalmist pledged to “teach transgressors your ways,” Paul seeks to reconcile the Corinthians to God, serving as an ‘‘ambassador for Christ.’’ In many of the readings for today, it is not the act but the motivation that counts, the way we respond to God’s gifts. So too here, he urges them “not to accept the grace of God in vain.” He cites Isaiah 49:8 in its reference to an acceptable time, a day of salvation, which Paul says has arrived. –– Jonathan Lawrence
David Bartlett, an ordained American Baptist minister, is Professor Emeritus of New Testament at Columbia Theological Seminary in Decatur, Georgia, and Lantz Professor Emeritus of Christian Communication at Yale Divinity School in New Haven, Connecticut.
Jonathan D. Lawrence, an American Baptist Church ordained minister, teaches Religious Studies and Theology at Canisius College, Buffalo, New York.
Sara Webb Phillips is a United Methodist minister serving North Springs UMC in Sandy Springs, Georgia.
Homily Service 39, no. 4 (2006): 2-12.