One of my friends sees as I don’t. He walks into a room and immediately senses things in others and in me to which I’m oblivious. Sometimes he says: “Don’t you see?” and I reply: “No, you’ve got to tell me. I can’t see.” That’s hard to say, to realize being in the dark while another can clearly see, to discover and experience limitation in the light of another’s ability.
In today’s gospel story, Jesus walks along and sees a person who is blind and who doesn’t ask for help. Jesus doesn’t ask what he wants. Jesus comes and opens his eyes. In response, a flurry of questions by the neighbors and the leaders: How did this happen? Was he really blind before? Who is Jesus? They struggle with question upon question, arguing, accusing, reprimanding, and rejecting. This community is stumbling, groping in the dark, trying to escape the truth that one born blind now sees because of Jesus.
As the community struggles and stumbles, this person grows to see even more. He is honest about limits: “I don’t know where Jesus is. I don’t know whether he is a sinner. One thing I do know, that though I was blind, now I see.” He also comes to know Jesus. First, he says “the man called Jesus” touched me. Then “he is a prophet.” A bit later “If this man were not from God, he could do nothing.” Finally, again face to face “Lord, I believe.” First, he receives literal sight, and second, insight, awakened to Jesus.
Today is the first Sunday in the holy season of Lent. ‘I hate Lent!’ So said Jonathan Swift. ‘I hate Lent, with its different diets and herb porridge, and sour devout faces of people who only put on religion for seven weeks.’ I actually like Lent. Many of my brothers would I think say the same. It’s a time to get serious. Not just giving up chocolate. The Jesuit James Martin wrote, ‘Don’t give up chocolate; give up being a jerk! It’s time to get serious about God and our lives. It’s a time to go into the desert of one’s heart to encounter God. A time for deeper prayer, repentance, silence and solitude. To look with unblinking eyes at the state of our lives, our relationships, our world.
The world we live in is a beautiful gift, God’s gift to us. And yet we know that God’s gift has been ravaged and broken. Our greed has plundered the land and damaged the environment. Millions live in abject poverty and hunger. Our wars, as in the Ukraine right now, have and continue to kill and maim and disfigure millions. Our sin has broken and scarred our relationships with one another, broken up families, divided people of different cultures, races, and beliefs. Our world, God’s precious and fragile gift to us is torn and divided violently at every level.
This terrible process is described in the New Testament as the work of ‘diabolos’ or the devil. That Greek word ‘diabolos’ used in the New Testament, literally means, ‘the one who throws apart’. The work of diabolos is essentially to divide, to break up that which was one.
Ash Wednesday marks the beginning of the season of Lent. At the Monastery, we follow the tradition of burning the palm branches from last year’s Palm Sunday and using those ashes in our liturgy. Ashes are an ancient sign of sorrow and repentance. They symbolized mourning, mortality, poverty, and penance.
The Christian custom on being marked with ashes on Ash Wednesday draws from the early western church. Lent began as the season of final preparation (following a three-years’ instruction as catechumens) for those seeking Holy Baptism at Easter. But the season was also used as a period of personal public penance in which those separated from the Church were restored to communion and fellowship by being sprinkled with ashes, dressed in sackcloth, and obliged to remain apart from the Christian community until Maundy Thursday. By the tenth century, this public penance had fallen into disuse, but a derivation of the practice was claimed for the entire church by placing ashes on the foreheads of the entire congregation, making the sign of the cross.
The ashes we receive on Ash Wednesday offer a two-fold reminder, which can be helpful to carry forward throughout the whole of Lent. First, ashes are a reminder of our mortality. As we hear in the funeral rite: “earth to earth, dust to dust, ashes to ashes.” The ashes remind us to live every day with an awareness of the preciousness of life, the stewardship of our resources, and gratitude for all the gifts of this life, which will end.
Secondly, ashes remind us of poverty. By taking on this outward sign of ashes, we acknowledge our identification with the poor, on two levels. In an internal way, all of us probably know the ways in which we feel vulnerable and in need, in which we come up short. This feeds our internal identification with poverty.
By taking the sign of ashes on our forehead, we also choose to take on an external identification with the poor of this world. We belong to them, and they to us. With ashes on our forehead for others to see, we take on a public pledge of the remediation of others’ poverty.
Ash Wednesday – like the whole ensuing season of Lent – beckons us again into our work: of turning afresh to the Lord, seeing ourselves clearly, and giving our need to the One who formed us from the dust.
Suggestions for Prayer and Practice
The liturgy for Ash Wednesday contains many rich resources for prayer and reflection, which can be used throughout the season of Lent. You might find it meaningful, in your personal prayer, to return to elements from this stirring, soul-searching liturgy.
- Invitation to the observance of a holy Lent (BCP 264)
- Psalm 51 (BCP 266)
- Litany of Penance (BCP 267-9)
It has long been the Christian practice to adopt during the season of Lent some spiritual practice that will draw us closer to God and nearer to the self whom God intends us to be. For some, this practice is a “giving up” – breaking some unhealthy habit, for instance, or examining prayerfully some disordered attachment in our lives in order to gain freedom from it. For others, it is a “taking on” – adopting a healthy practice, or engaging our minds and bodies in new and life-giving ways, or reaching out to others. This Lent, prayerfully consider what practice would allow you to take the next step on your pilgrimage of faith.
Throughout Lent, we hear the call for repentance most every day. Repentance asks us to observe in retrospect where we had it wrong and with whom, and then to resolve to make amends where we can. You might find a daily practice of repentance to be a helpful Lenten discipline. At the end of each day, stop; review your day. Be thankful in every way you can be thankful; pay attention to where you need to repent. And then claim Jesus’ promise that he is with us to create in us a new heart.
Perhaps the most important discipline to take on during Lent is intentionality. Don’t sort-of do something. Don’t sort-of fast from something. Be intentional: be really present to the grace of this season and its power to draw us near to God.
Praying the Questions
In the collect from the Ash Wednesday liturgy, we pray, “Create and make in us new and contrite hearts….” The English word, “contrite,” comes from the Latin, contrītus, which means “thoroughly crushed.” The sense of the word is about having a heart broken open. How is your heart being broken open now, in this season of life? What is God inviting you to in this opening?
Lent is not a time to be miserable, to try to lose weight, to break old habits. Instead it is a time to discover who we truly are: a people worthy of pardon and absolution, a people worthy of the good news of the Gospel of Jesus Christ, a people worthy to stand in God’s presence, a people worthy of God’s love. The purpose of Lent is to discover our worth, not to revel in our misery. This Lent, even as you acknowledge your sin, you might also mediate on your own worthiness. As you look in the mirror, can you see someone who is holy because God is holy? And as you go about the world – on the T, in a shop, at your office – can you see those around you as a temple of God, because God’s Spirit has chosen to dwell therein?
The penitence, self-examination, prayer, fasting, and alms-giving enjoined upon us in Lent are for us, for our own benefit, and not for God’s. They are meant to bring us into a face-to-face encounter with our need, as well as the need of our brothers and sisters. These spiritual tools have been sharpened and refined by the generations and bequeathed to us for the sake of our growth in humility and larger vision. The longer we look, the more God will reveal. How have you been blind or refused God’s invitations to grow?
There is a line in this evening’s lesson from Isaiah that has always appealed to me. In fact, a number of years ago when I was asked what my favourite line from Scripture was, I quoted this one. I don’t know if I would still say it remains my favourite, but it continues to intrigue me. Come now, let us argue it out, says the Lord.
The line, and indeed the passage, intrigues me, because of what it tells us about God, and God’s nature.
In my imagination, what unfolds before us this evening is a great courtroom drama, with all the twists and turns that implies. Think, if you a certain age, Perry Mason. And I think that’s what Isaiah had in mind. Isaiah is not speaking of an argument, between two angry and hostile parties. He is speaking in terms of a legal argument, where all the facts of the case are laid before the court, which has the power to make an ultimate decision or judgement.
If Isaiah is describing a court of law, and not a verbal argument between two antagonists, then we can ask ourselves, who are the actors in this courtroom drama? Who is judge or jury? Who are the opposing attorneys? Who is the defendant? Most particularly we can ask, what is this case about.
The answer to the last two questions is clear. The defendants are those children of God Isaiah references, who have rebelled, who do evil and deal corruptly, who have forsaken and despised the Holy One, and who are utterly estranged from God. The case is one of rebellion, and it is they, the children of God, who have rebelled, and who are now clothed in the scarlet and crimson of their sins.
Last Holy Week, I had fun dyeing eggs for Easter. Rather than using commercial food dye, or buying an Easter Egg dyeing kit, I looked around the kitchen, and created various dyeing solutions using different spices, vegetables, and fruits.
Not only is Isaiah giving us a lesson in Biblical legal procedures in this passage, he is also giving us a lesson in the art of dyeing fabric. What I learnt dyeing eggs resonates with what Isaiah hints at.
It is no accident that Isaiah uses the colours scarlet and crimson to denote sin, and it is not simply because they are the colour of blood. To dye something scarlet or crimson requires that the article be left in the dye solution for quite some time. As I discovered with my Easter eggs, the longer something is left in the solution, the deeper the colour, and the harder it is to wipe off. Those whose sin has coloured them scarlet, who are red like crimson, Isaiah tells us, have utterly forsaken God, and walked far from the paths of righteousness. We are not speaking here of a pale colour that will soon fade. We are speaking of a colour, indeed a sin, that is deeply, indelibly set.
Nor should it surprise us that Isaiah is not speaking of a nameless, or anonymous people in this passage. He is speaking of a people known to him. Indeed, he is speaking of a people to whom he is speaking: the people of Judah and Jerusalem. By extension, he is speaking to us. We are that sinful, rebellious, corrupt people, whose sins have clothed us in scarlet and crimson.
Because our sin is so indelibly set, like the colours scarlet and crimson, the outcome of our legal case is certain. The judgement can be nothing less than guilty as charged. But that’s where things get exciting. That’s why I find this passage so fascinating.
While the identity of the defendant is clear, and they are clearly guilty, the judge, jury, and attorneys switch sides in an instant, and go from prosecuting the defendant, to pleading with them. …though your sins are like scarlet, they shall be like snow; though they are red like crimson, they shall become like wool. If you are willing and obedient, you shall eat the good of the land.
Isaiah’s audience would have known how difficult it is to reverse the dyeing process, and take something scarlet or crimson, and turn it white. They would have known the impossibility of such a transformation. No amount of washing, soaking, scrubbing, or bleaching, would be able to totally remove the scarlet and crimson dye. What had been dyed scarlet or crimson was indelibly coloured. Nothing can change that.
The surprising thing is that Isaiah suggests it can be changed. The surprising thing is that scarlet and crimson can be made white. With that, the legal case is turned on its ear, and the judge, who one minute was ready to find the defendant guilty, is equally prepared to find them innocent. …you shall be like snow…you shall become like wool. If you are willing and obedient, you shall eat the good of the land. And we know now, the judge, jury, and attorneys to be none other than God, the Holy One of Israel.
If scarlet and crimson are the colours of indelible sin, then the purity of snow, and the loveliness of wool point in the opposite direction. We saw that direction several days ago.
Now about eight days after these sayings Jesus took with him Peter and John and James, and went up on the mountain to pray. And while he was praying, the appearance of his face changed, and his clothes became dazzling white.
In the Transfiguration, we see Jesus as he truly is, radiating God’s glory, and being shown to be God’s son. ‘This is my Son, my Chosen; listen to him!’
Baptized as we are into Christ Jesus, we see ourselves as God intends us to be. Like Jesus, in him we too are clothed in dazzling white, and bathed in glory. What a far cry is this vision of ourselves, from the one Isaiah holds before us. There we see ourselves stained by sin and indelibly coloured scarlet and crimson. Now we see ourselves pure and lovely, radiating God’s glory.
Both Isaiah and Jesus tell us this transformation, indeed, this transfiguration is possible. All it takes for us to go from being indelibly coloured by sin, is to wash ourselves by ceasing to do evil, learning to do good, seeking justice, rescuing the oppressed, defending the orphan, and pleading for the widow.
This transformation, indeed, this transfiguration, from scarlet to snow, and crimson to wool, from a people utterly estranged from God, and indelibly marked by sin, to the beloved daughters and sons of God, happens when we remember who and whose we are. Baptized into Christ we are called to be a people of justice, mercy, and peace, who like the ox knows its owner, and like the donkey knows its master’s crib.
Acknowledging whose we are, and where we belong turns the legal case against us and our sin on its ear. Judge, jury, and attorneys go in an instant from prosecuting our guilt and sin, to pleading our innocence, and forgiving our sin. In an instant the mark of rebellion and estrangement from God is wiped out, as we come to know ourselves as God’s beloved daughters and sons.
For many, Lent is a time to recognize our sin. It is a time to acknowledge they are like scarlet and red like crimson. Lent is a time to recognize that we do evil and deal corruptly. But if that is the only message of Lent, no wonder it makes us miserable.
There is another message of Lent. It is the message of Isaiah, the message of Jesus. [Though our] sins be like scarlet, they shall be like snow; though they are red like crimson, they shall become like wool.
No matter how set is the colour of our sin, the message of Lent, the message of Isaiah, the message of Jesus is a message of ultimate release and forgiveness when we will know ourselves as God intends us to be, clothed in dazzling white, and bathed in glory, like fresh snow, and washed wool.
I am intrigued by the passage, and by God’s desire to argue it out with us, because in the end it reminds us that God’s nature is always to have mercy and forgive, just as our nature is to be clothed in dazzling white and bathed in glory as the beloved daughters and sons of God.
 Isaiah 1: 18a
 Isaiah 1: 2 – 4, 18
 Isaiah 1: 18 – 19
 Luke 9: 28 – 29
 Luke 9: 35
 See Isaiah 1: 16 – 17
 See Isaiah 1: 2
Isaiah 1:2-4, 16-20
Psalm 50:7-15, 22-24
Much of the snow here melted last week, changing our perspective. The grounds and gardens came back into view. As soon as the river thawed, rowers went back out in their sculls. We see what was hidden: water, plants, and paths along with trash and twigs. Lent invites revealing, attending to what has been hidden, and reordering our lives. It may include gathering the trash and raking up the twigs within our souls, what we can see is out of place.
God says through the prophet Isaiah in tonight’s scripture: “I reared children and brought them up, but they have rebelled against me. … Wash yourselves; make yourselves clean; remove evil … cease to do evil.” It is more than lawns or riverbanks and more than simply tidying up. Wash yourself from evil. From denying goodness in each other. From denying goodness in ourselves and in the world. From all our little to large words and actions and inaction—including allowing others and systems to act on our behalf—all that degrades, oppresses, shames, and enslaves.[i]
Particularly in Lent, we are called to realize, name, and turn from our sin. As we will sing: “Lenten gifts invite us, searching deep within, claiming our desires, naming all our sin.”[ii] Not in order to beat ourselves up. Not because God wants revenge. Rather, surrender by acknowledging our need and receive grace. God comes wanting to save.
Again?! More?! More giving up, letting go, and self-denial, more awareness of need and sin, more repentance and vulnerability? Do we really need more Lent? The past year feels like a long Lent with so much loss and grief, and it is as if we are still waiting for Easter. Now more Lenten wilderness again? Let us keep praying with the psalmist “How long, O Lord?”[i] Scripture both gives voice to our lament and reminds us of our story.
Back near the beginning, in the Book of Genesis, seeing evil pervasive throughout the world, God sent a flood. God also chose to save through the ark. Afterward, God gave a promise: I will never destroy like this again. I choose you and all living creatures forever. The flood is not as surprising to me now as it once was because I have experienced more of the prevailing evil. I see the wrong not simply in others as it is easy to point out, but that which is in myself. I mess up so much over and over again in thought and action, opposing God, not loving my neighbor, nor loving myself. The flood reminds that we all sin and fall short.
Notice God’s promise to Noah. It’s one-sided. There is no requirement for how Noah or humanity must behave. It’s all up to God. Just after this passage, Noah gets drunk and is ashamed. In the Bible, we hear stories of human folly again and again. The characters cheat, steal, fight, conspire, sleep around, murder, and all the other things that, if we are honest, resonate with our desires and actions. From the flood and throughout, scripture reminds us we all need salvation.
One question sometimes asked about Jesus, concerns his own self-understanding. How did he understand who he was, and the purpose of his mission? We get a glimpse of his answer today. ‘Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick. Go and learn what this means, “I desire mercy, not sacrifice.” For I have come to call not the righteous but sinners.’
It was as physician, healer, restorer, forgiver, saviour that Jesus, at least here in Matthew, saw himself. Such an understanding should not surprise us. In the opening chapter of Matthew’s gospel, the angel tells Joseph, do not be afraid to take Mary as your wife, for the child conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. She will bear a son, and you are to name him Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.’
It is in that context, Jesus as saviour, that the rest of Matthew’s gospel unfolds.
The thing about a saviour is that, just as we don’t need a doctor if we are unaware of our illness, we don’t need a saviour, if we are unaware of our need for salvation. And that for me is the key, to Scripture; to Lent; even to myself.
All of us have secrets: secret thoughts, secret feelings, secret fears, hopes and desires. All of us know more about ourselves than we care to share with others. We allow others to think we have pure hearts, but we know that we harbor impure thoughts. We hope others will notice how unselfish we are, yet we know that selfishness still resides in us. We want people to see us as strong and courageous, but we know that often we are weak and afraid.
We live with secrets, all of us. We’re sometimes shocked when we learn something about a person that we never would have guessed, something that had been hidden from us. But the truth is that we will never fully know even the closest of our friends and companions. We are mysteries to each other, like icebergs of which we can see only the tip. And we are mysteries to ourselves. We will never fully understand why we think and act in the ways we do. Only God knows the secrets of our hearts.
Jesus often exposed the secrets of others. He perceived the hypocrisy of the Pharisees. He discerned the true motives of the crowds that followed him. He saw into the hearts of his disciples. He knows our secrets. He knows that what we do on the outside does not always match up with what is going on within us. We may appear to be seeking God and trying to do what is right, and yet inwardly we are preoccupied with the impression we are making on other people. We may give the appearance of serving God, but it may not actually be God’s approval that we are seeking, or God’s purposes that we are trying to advance.
After Jesus’ crucifixion, his followers shared their memories of him, trying to make sense of what he had predicted. That is often the case as we look back on life, the “ah-hah” experience that comes when we remember and understand someone or something from a new perspective: “Oh, I get it. That’s what he meant when he said such-and-such.” “Oh, that’s what was going on then. I can see it now.”
- Jesus had earlier predicted that when he arrived in Jerusalem he would be killed, not crowned. Most of his followers had not understood him at the time.
- That after his crucifixion he would regain life, be resurrected. When they first heard it, most of his followers had missed what he was saying.
- That he would then return to his “father” – he would leave them, but not leave them without comfort or power. God’s Spirit would come to be with them. When they first heard it, most of his followers could not make sense of that.
- That his followers would take up their own cross and suffer. They had not missed that, because of what had been happening for decades. The Roman Empire had found Jesus’ followers seditious and treasonous; they were like sheep to be slaughtered.[i]
Our first lesson, from Saint Peter’s second letter to the church, was written around year 65, more than a generation after Jesus had finally left them, had ascended. One last promise that Jesus had spoken, his followers clung to: that he would return to earth, that he would come again in their lifetime, so they understood.[ii] They had lived with that hope. But Jesus’ return had not happened, and there was every imaginable explanation why. Peter is writing here about the meantime, in a very mean time, how then shall we live in the absence of Jesus’ return? “What sort of persons ought we to be in leading lives of holiness and godliness?” He answers his own question. Peter’s words still pertain.
- Peter writes that we are waiting on the Lord, but it’s actually the Lord waiting on them.” Why? For our repentance: to realign ourselves to life on Jesus’ terms and to change our ways: to repent of the evil that enslaves us, the evil we have done, and the evil done on our behalf.
- And then Peter calls his readers to “lead lives of holiness and godliness, at peace,” he says, “without spot or blemish… and not carried away, such we they lose their own stability.”
Lent is upon us tomorrow. The forty days of Lent remind us of Jesus’ forty days in the wilderness. For Jesus, those forty days were not a time when he would confront the misaligned political and economic powers that surrounded him, about which he was well apprised. Rather, those forty days were a time to re-align himself to why God had given him life: to claim the right purpose, the right power, the right voice God had given him. There he was in the desert to be purged of anything in the world that tempted him to stray from his reason for being.
And for us, Lent will give us forty days for the purgation of our own souls, where we may have colluded with the very powers we condemn. The focus of Lent can create space anew for the light, and life, and love to Jesus to teem in us and through us to our desperately broken world. Lent is to help us.
[i] Romans 8:36.
[ii] See Matthew 24:34; Mark 13:30; Luke 21:32. See also Acts 1:11.
Welcome dear feast of Lent: who loves not thee,
He loves not Temperance, or Authority
But is compos’d of passion.
The Scripture bids us fast; the Church says, now:
It is a poem I return to each Lent, because that first phrase turns everything upside down for me. I need to be reminded that Lent is not a time of misery, but of joy and delight. It is the springtime of the Church, and holds within it the promise of new life, similar to what we see emerging all around us, at this time of year.
Like any gardener anxiously eyeing the weather, and scouring seed catalogues, waiting, waiting, waiting, to begin the hard work of preparing the garden for another season, we turn our eyes inward, and begin the hard work of preparation, so that like Mary Magdalene, we too can encounter the Risen Lord in the garden of our souls.
Though her eyes were filled with tears, and at first unable to see clearly, Mary, like Herbert, was richly rewarded.
Who goeth in the way which Christ has gone,
That travelleth byways:
Perhaps my God, though he be far before,
May turn, and take me by the hand, and more
May strengthen my decays.
We begin Lent today in this way: kneeling, with ashes on our foreheads, and reminded of our sins. This is not in order to make us feel guilty and miserable, but in order to open our eyes, and ears, and hearts, and hands, to the mystery of love, and the One who is Love. With eyes and hands open, we may find God taking us by the hand, and leading us the rest of the way. When that happens we, and all God’s people, will discover the fast which God chooses:
Is not this the fast that I choose: [says God]
to loose the bonds of injustice,
to undo the thongs of the yoke,
to let the oppressed go free,
and to break every yoke?
Is it not to share your bread with the hungry,
and bring the homeless poor into your house;
when you see the naked, to cover them,
and not to hide yourself from your own kin?
Lent is not a time to be miserable. It is a time to feast on the mercy, love, and justice of God. And that feast begins, kneeling in the garden of our souls.
 George Herbert (1593 – 1633), priest and poet
 Herbert, George, Lent as found in George Herbert, The Country Parson, The Temple, The Classics of Western Spirituality, edited by John Wall, Paulist Press, New York, 1981, page 204
 Isaiah 58: 6 – 7