by Jay Cormier
I think we’d all agree that we are living in very challenging times, to say the least. We’re deeply divided along the fault lines of race, nationality, gender, culture, politics, religion. The divides seem too wide to cross, the anger and distrust, too deep to bridge. And yet, despite the polarization, we hear the prophet Joel calling us to gather, to assemble, to come together. Return to the Lord, your God, Joel cries – even now.
We worry about our children and their children’s future: What will be left of this earth for them? We wonder where our country is heading; we fear that our planet is one ill-advised step away from utter destruction. But, despite the uncertainty and fear, the prophet insists, there is reason to hope in the mercy and kindness of God — even now.
On this first day of Lent, we all have our own worries and concerns: Your job might on the bubble. You may be struggling to find the money for next semester’s tuition. You might be anxious about the costs of your family’s health care and insurance. Yet, despite all these worries weighing on our minds and hearts, the prophet insists: turn toward the values of the heart — even now.
As you leave here with a fresh smudge of ashes on your head, you might be returning home to face some problem or challenge. You might be dealing with a loved one’s illness. A son or daughter may be in serious trouble. “Happily ever after” isn’t, right now. All the more reason, the prophet says, to seek the mercy and blessing of God — even now.
In today’s first reading, the prophet Joel is speaking to a country mired in economic and political devastation. The Jews have just returned to Israel after years of exile and slavery. Drought and locusts threaten to destroy Judah’s grain fields, orchards and vineyards; the hard work of rebuilding the city of Jerusalem painfully drags on; corruption and injustice are again destroying Jewish society and government. Everything is a mess; everything is broken.
Yet, Joel preaches, even now there is reason to hope;
even now we can restore our land, he urges;
even now we can rebuild our lives, he reassures them;
even now God is with us.
Even now represents any circumstance that makes us feel distant from God — and even now is the assurance of God’s grace despite those circumstances.
Ash Wednesday is a unique day on the Church’s calendar. Throughout the liturgical year, we celebrate solemnities and feasts of major events in the life of the Lord: his birth, his baptism, his transfiguration, his resurrection, his ascension. And we have days when we honor Mary and the saints. But Ash Wednesday celebrates no event in Jesus’ life or the life of any saint. There is no “Ash Wednesday” story in the Gospel.
Ash Wednesday has been devised by the Church, by us, to begin the season of Lent. Ash Wednesday is our realizing that we need to stop, that we need to turn from winter darkness to spring light, that we need to mend what is broken in our lives. This day of ashes calls to face the reality that, if we’re going to make our lives what we want them to be, then we need to confront our failings, our mistakes, our sins and resolve to re-create and restore our lives in God’s grace and peace.
These ashes are signs that we “get it.”
So, no matter what part of your life is in ashes on this first day of Lent 2018, know that the mercy of God is in your midst in the family and friends who love and care for you. Realize that we can turn around and change course. Let these ashes instill in us the hope that our journey does not end on a cross of broken wood.
This is the “acceptable” time, Saint Paul says, this is the day to turn around our attitudes, our perspectives, our lives, our spirits.
This Lent, take Joel’s call to heart: Restore the landscape of your life. Stop and refocus on the things of the heart. Return to the Lord –
the God of blessing,
the God of kindness,
the God of peace.
Even now.Especially now.
Jay Cormier is deacon at Saints Mary and Joseph Parish in Salem, NH.
Featured image: Blessing the Dust © Jan Richardson. janrichardson.com