Scripture for Ash Wednesday: Joel 2:1-2, 12-17; Psalm 51:1-17; II Corinthians 5:20-6:10; Matthew 6:1-6, 16-21

“‘And yet even now,’ says the Lord, ‘return to me with all your heart . . .’”
—Joel 2:12

Ash Wednesday marks the beginning of the Church’s observance of the Lenten season—six weeks set apart for the purpose of drawing closer to God and seeking him with greater intensity.  Lent comes early this year with Ash Wednesday falling on February 13, so we wanted to give you some time to prepare.

Unfortunately, the Lenten season often gets reduced to the question, “What are you giving up for Lent?”  This is a fine question, but it can only take us so far.  The real question of the Lenten season is, “How will I repent and return to God with all my heart?” This begs an even deeper question:

“Where in my life have I gotten away from God, and what are the disciplines that will enable me to find my way back?”

Honest to God

As we prepare for Lent, we are called to be as honest as we are able about the ways we have “left” God and slipped into spiritual mediocrity. “You desire truth in the inward being,” Psalm 51 points out. “Therefore, teach me wisdom in my secret heart.”

As God gives us wisdom and insight about our true condition we can choose spiritual practices that are uniquely suited to help us return to God in the places where we have strayed or to renew our passion where our hearts have grown cold.

The Scripture readings for Ash Wednesday provide a good introduction and overview of some of the concrete disciplines we might consider as we enter into the Lenten season–prayer and fasting, hiddenness, self-examination and repentance, forgiving others as we have been forgiven, and storing up treasure in heaven by giving generously to others. These practices have the potential to loosen the grip of sin and distraction in our lives, creating  inner and outer space for attending to our relationship with God who is calling out for us to return to him.

Search Me, O God

Left to ourselves, we probably would not choose to devote a whole season to such rigorous and demanding disciplines, but God knows we need it. As we receive the symbolic gesture of the imposition of ashes on our foreheads, we acknowledge our human finiteness and mortality. No matter who we think we are, receiving the ashes reminds us that, “You are dust and to dust you will return” (Genesis 3:19). This is not meant to be morbid; it is just meant to limit our grandiosity and help us to stay in touch with the real human condition we all share.

The ashes marking our foreheads carry the same meaning contained in the Old Testament practice of covering oneself with ashes. They are a graphic reminder of our sinfulness, an outward sign of inward repentance and mourning as we become aware of attitudes, orientations, and sin patterns that keep us from abandoning ourselves to God. This, too, is good for us because we live in so much denial. With as much openness as we can muster, we invite God to search us and know us and (eventually) lead us into resurrection life.

Longing for God

The purpose for engaging in Lenten disciplines is that we would become more finely attuned to our longing for God so we can seek him with all our hearts. Disciplines of fasting and other kinds of abstinence help us face the hold our sin patterns have on us so we can somehow let go of our attachment to anything that is not God.  As we acknowledge the grip our attachments have on us, we can shape our Lenten season around practices uniquely suited to the invitations that emerge in the context of this deeper self-knowledge. As we embark upon this Lenten season, we can ask, “What practices will help me return to the Lord during these set-apart days?”

  • How will I practice self-examination and confession in order to facilitate the truth in my inward being that God desires? (Psalm 51: 6)
  • How will I give?  (Matt. 6:2,3)
  • How will I pray? (Matt. 6:5-13)
  • Who do I need to forgive and from whom do I need to seek forgiveness? (Matt. 6:14,15)
  • How will I fast? What do I need to abstain from in order to create more space for God?  (Matt. 6:16-18)
  • What earthly treasures am I attached to and how will I “let go” in order to invest In God’s kingdom? (Matt. 6:19-21)
  • How will I be reconciled to God and how will I engage in the ministry of reconciliation this season?  (II Cor. 5)
  • How will I practice hiddenness as I order my life more intentionally around these disciplines?  (Matt. 6:1, 5, 16-17)

Realistically, most of us will not be able to incorporate all these disciplines but we certainly can choose one or two that will help us to return to God with all our hearts.  In very private moments with God we can allow him to show us what disciplines, practiced in what way, would be most effective in helping us create space for cultivating our relationship with him.

God’s Steadfast Love

Serious as the Lenten season is, it is also a time of great hope as we experience God’s steadfast love for us, even in the midst of whatever sin we are acknowledging. With confidence we pray, Have mercy on me, O God, according to your steadfast love; according to your abundant mercy blot out my transgressions.

In the shadow of Christ’s cross and impending resurrection we are assured that there is forgiveness and cleansing for all who turn to him. In Christ there is the power to pass from death unto life in the places where we ourselves are in need of resurrection.

©Ruth Haley Barton, 2013. Adapted from Lent: A Season of Returning. Not to be used without permission.

Ruth Haley Barton, D.D., is founder of the Transforming Center. A spiritual director, teacher and retreat leader, she is the author of Pursuing God’s Will Together, Strengthening the Soul of Your Leadership, Sacred Rhythms, and Invitation to Solitude and Silence (InterVarsity Press).

Lent Calendar (Cycle C) and guidance for using the lectionary

Question:  How do you plan to arrange your life around practices that will help you return to God this season?  

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