The Rev. Canon Dana Colley Corsello: A Contrite Heart
I want to begin my homily where this service began, with the Collect for Ash Wednesday. If you’ve been praying it for most of your life and it’s become rote, or if you don’t pay that much attention to the opening prayer because you’re trying to get settled, you may not have noticed that it is chock full of astounding theology: Almighty and everlasting God, you hate nothing you have made and forgive the sins of all who are penitent: Create and make in us new and contrite hearts, that we, worthily lamenting our sins and acknowledging our wretchedness, may obtain of you, the God of all mercy, perfect remission and forgiveness; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
In that brief paragraph we learn that God forgives the sins of all who are penitent, especially those of us who acknowledge our wretchedness, and that God will re-create our hearts, because God hates nothing God has made. That’s a lot to unpack.
In a few minutes one of us will smudge your forehead with ash and say, “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.” We do this to remind you of your mortality. These words and the words of the collect, “God hates nothing God has made,” should force you to contemplate a bewildering paradox: You are beloved of God. And you will die. The first truth does not prevent the second. The second truth does not negate the first. I want to begin there. You are beloved of God. And you will die.
But before I do, I want to tell you why you should care about the liturgical season of Lent and why it has consequences for all of humanity.
First, if you’ve ever lived in a climate where the seasons do not change, you know how monotonous the weather can be. Even if it’s perfect, it’s the same-old, same-old. When we lived in San Francisco and the weather was either “warm and warmer” or “cool and cooler” I had to rely on Trader Joe’s to put out the daffodils in mid-March to know that spring was coming. In Washington, we’re blessed (and perhaps cursed in the summer) to live in a climate where we get to experience the four seasons, especially the glorious springtime when new life explodes before our very eyes in cherry reds and pinks. The changing of seasons allows us to recalibrate and reconnect with God’s creation.
I believe that one of the reasons God designed seasonal change was to teach us to notice other signs of change in the spiritual realm. A dying landscape inspires us to let go. Harsher weather sends us to seek God for shelter.
Longer nights coax us into silence and meditation. A new quality of air brings fresh ideas and perspectives. Just as a change of season can put a kick back in our step, church seasons are also welcome opportunities for pruning what needs to be cut back to allow for new growth. Frankly, I doubt many of you noticed a change of season during Epiphany, and you probably won’t once we get into the long months after Pentecost called Ordinary Time. But you should now.
You know how we often hear people or companies confess, “We can do better” after they screw up or get caught doing something they shouldn’t have. Well, Lent is also that season when we Christians publicly profess that “we can do better” and then commit 40 days to coming and staying clean. For this reason, Lent is the most brutally realistic season of the year, a time when we tell the truth about ourselves to ourselves—about our brokenness, about our mortality—and nevertheless trust in God’s redemptive love.
And so we begin today, Ash Wednesday, acknowledging with the imposition of ashes that we have succumbed to the appalling messiness of humanity. We kneel before God and bare it all. And if we’re brave, we expose the “secret sin” that coils about our souls. The same sin we attempt to hide even from ourselves. John Henry Newman, the 19th century theologian, quipped, “No one sins without making some excuse to himself for sinning.” He called this excuse-mongering the “second sin” of both Adam and Eve, or the “Original Excuse.”[i] As you may know, I am no fan of the doctrine of “Original Sin.” But I can certainly get behind the notion of “Original Excuse.” Yep, that one has my name on it.
The question before us is: Why do we trust God with our vulnerabilities, and especially with our shameful transgressions? Simply, it’s because God can take it. God can take it because God hates nothing God has made. This truth mercifully includes you and me, but it also includes the evil war mongers who commit crimes against humanity; it includes racist police officers who brutalize and kill citizens they are entrusted to serve; and it includes raging people with guns who randomly murder innocent children and college students in classrooms. I could go on. Please understand that these perpetuators of evil do not get a free pass. As our collect for today reads, “Almighty and everlasting God, you hate nothing you have made and forgive the sins of all who are penitent.” Yes, we are known and loved by God—but this does not mean we are free from God’s judgement; we are obliged to be ruthlessly honest about our sin and wretchedness. Only with a contrite heart are we granted forgiveness. This is the truth of the cross.
And now with ashes on our foreheads and mortality on our minds, we continue this hazardous journey inward, a journey to explore why Christ Jesus loves us despite ourselves, and what our shared humanity requires of us now. How do we do this? Can you imagine if everyone prostrated themselves before a Higher Power to make amends each year? To get the earth back on its axis of sanity, peace and love? This is why we embark on a Lenten journey. Not only do we pray for reconciliation with and within ourselves; we kneel for one another, we kneel for everyone here, we kneel for our neighbor down the street, we kneel for our enemies, we kneel for all of humankind. We kneel to heal the world.
In a culture that glorifies hubris and bravado, our confession signifies an outrageously counter-cultural act of humility. We kneel to acknowledge that we are small, we are not everything, we are not immortal, we are not all-powerful. We’re just a scrap of the dust of the earth, breathed to life by God, and one day we will return to that earth. Returning to God, returning to home, to one’s self, returning to the truth, the grim truth of dust and ashes: we will die. If the cross teaches us anything, it teaches us that God’s precious children still bleed, still ache, still die. None of us can quite come to terms with what the earthquake in Turkey and Syria has wrought, but our faith tells us we are the children of a God who accompanies us in our suffering, not a God who guarantees us a lifetime of immunity. Why is this good news? It is good news because we are also the children of a God who resurrects.
There is no suffering we will ever endure that God will not redeem.
The season of Lent reminds us that we are east of Eden but short of Zion. To journey toward the passion of Christ in Jerusalem, we begin in the wilderness of our own souls. We rend our hearts knowing what is to come as we make our way to Golgotha. But we also know that beyond Lent lies Easter: the resurrection and promise of life eternal. And so, the ash imprinted on our foreheads tells the world that the only way beyond death is through it. We are marked by death because we have already died with Christ in the water of our baptisms. You see, the Gospel does not deny death; it transfigures it. The story of humanity is not a story that ends in despair. Lent is not a time to do penance for being human.
It’s a time to embrace all that it means to be human. Human and wretched. Human and vulnerable. Human and beloved. Amen.
[i] https://www.firstthings.com/web-exclusives/2007/02/john-henry-newman-on-lent, Sins of Infirmity.