Ash Wednesday is the first day of Lent. My first brush with Ash Wednesday came ages ago when I was at Purdue University. One day a friend of mine appeared with a very visible gray mark on his forehead, and I called it to his attention, thinking it should be removed. He informed me that it was Ash Wednesday, and he had been to mass that morning. My ignorance was on display, and I said no more. For me, Ash Wednesday was an acquired taste that had no place in my low-church Mennonite childhood.
You might wonder where the word “Lent” comes from. It is associated with the word length, because we observe Lent when the days are getting longer.
Three designated times of the Christian year can be considered together: Advent, Ash Wednesday, and Lent. A spoiler cannot be ignored — Mardi Gras, which was a pagan festival before Christianity. It is not at all a Christian holiday anywhere, but it serves as a day for eager sinners followed at once by a day of penitence, with both days under the nose of the church. Mardi Gras acts as the ornery Siamese twin of Ash Wednesday; the two are successive days joined together at midnight. The popular attitude in places where Mardi Gras is vigorously celebrated seems to be: if we’re going to be forced to confess our sins, we want our money’s worth. In some parts of southern Germany the season of merrymaking and mischief extends for weeks.
A parallel between Lent and the first Sunday of Advent exists, though it is not always recognized. Both Lent and Advent begin with an admission that we are sinners and must be honest about it. We must say with today’s Psalmist “I know my transgressions.” Only then are we set to join in anticipation of the Easter and Christmas high celebrations that follow. It is as though in both Christmas and Easter the Christian story delivers something for which we are not initially prepared, so that the first step in the celebration is to confess our sins, to become worthy to take part in the drama over many days that ends so well for Christmas and for Easter.
That confession is a rightful first step in worship and in the life of a believer has been incorporated into all choral settings of the Latin mass. The opening words are always “Kyrie eleison, Christe eleison.” Lord, have mercy, Christ, have mercy. (The Pope is out with a new book called “The Name of God is Mercy.”) We all stand before God with the same need. The results of confession should always be positive, as in Psalm 51:12: “Restore to me the joy of your salvation, and sustain in me a willing spirit.”
I am among friends, so that I feel free to digress and speak of two passages in today’s lectionary that trouble me, the first far less than the second. The first is Joel 2:1 “Blow the trumpet in Zion; sound the alarm on my holy mountain! Let all the inhabitants of the land tremble, for the day of the LORD is coming, it is near-“ We would like to think that if our sins are heralded with trumpets blasting away, surely it is then right to make a noise when we do good things. But Matthew 6:2 declares that “So whenever you give alms, do not sound a trumpet before you.” In other words, give quietly without drawing attention to yourself. Our monthly offerings are quiet and sufficiently private that only the treasurer knows what people give.
We can take the admonition to refrain from making a show of our giving as an absolute command, everywhere in force. However, Mary Jo and I lived in D R Congo for two years, and once attended a Kimbanguist worship service. (Kimbanguism is a denomination created in the Congo by Simon Kimbangu, one of their own people.) The offering was unforgettable. An offering basket was placed in front and center in the congregation; the choir sang, the drums played, and people danced up to place their offerings in the basket. The music and excitement lasted for some minutes, until finally a wealthy man, perhaps the only one in the congregation, came forward and waved his cash gift in the air before placing it in the basket. People cheered; they loved it. Their difficult lives were blessed by the opportunity to cheer in church. Maybe there’s a place for a noisy offering in another culture.
The second passage is Psalm 51:5, “I was born guilty, a sinner when my mother conceived me.” Taken at face value, the verse offends me. However, my objections were swept away by this statement in a leading commentary, noting King David as author: “…this is not the moralist arguing a point, but the sinner defending himself.” (Interpreter’s Bible, Vol. IV, 1955, page 269) In other words, David is blaming his parents for his sinful nature. Not everything in the Bible carries equal authority.
Now back to Ash Wednesday.
The Confession of Faith in a Mennonite Perspective of course has a section on sin. I abbreviate the lengthy definition as follows: “Sin is turning away from God…We sin by making individual and group choices to do unrighteousness and injustice. We sin by omitting to do good…we…destroy right relationships, use power selfishly, do violence, and become separated from God…” (Article 7)
Joel 2:13 leads us along the right path in response to our sins:
… Come back to the Lord your God.
He is kind and full of mercy;
He is patient and keeps his promise;
he is always ready to forgive and not punish. (Good News Study Bible)
Psalm 51:10 declares the perfect response to Ash Wednesday and Lent: “Create in me a clean heart, O God, and put a new and right spirit within me.” AMEN