Wednesday, March 9, 2011

We Rise Again From Ashes

September 11, 2001 was a terrible day for our country and for the world. It's hard to believe that it has been over nine years now. The horrors of that day are still so fresh in our minds. We remember how everything stopped. If you were at work, you stopped what you were doing to listen to the reports. Whatever you may have been watching on TV that day was interrupted to bring the latest news of the event.

And the news was not good. Death, destruction, fire, explosions, hatred, fear: All these form the images from that tragic day. At ground zero, only smoke, rubble and ashes were left. That day changed our perspective on life, on our country and on the world. We have not been the same since.

We begin the season of Lent today. Lent is a blessed time when we stop what we are doing to observe a tragedy, the tragedy of sin. Our history as a human race is scarred by endless conflicts as a result of sin. Sin has brought nothing but death and destruction. Some of it has been devastating, like the events of September 11. Most sin, however, wreaks its havoc in small ways in our personal lives. Nonetheless, there is no one who has not been marked by the effects of sin.

However, unlike September 11 when we weren't sure how to handle the tragedy or how to prevent another one, we do know what to do about sin. God tells us through the prophet Joel in today's first reading: "Even now, says the Lord, return to me with your whole heart, with fasting and weeping and mourning." Once we realize the damage that sin has worked in our lives, we have no choice but to turn to God and to show our regret in a dramatic way. This is what Lent is about. It is about returning to God and asking God to change our lives.

Today, we will mark our foreheads with ashes. It is a symbol that we are guilty of the destruction which sin has wrought in our world. But, more importantly, it is a symbol of hope. For the God who created us out of dust, can also bring good out of the world's misery and evil. We approach the altar to be marked with ashes as a sign of our repentance, as a sign that we mean to change. We bear proudly on our foreheads the mark of a God who brings life out of death.

And so sin, destruction and death are not the final chapter in human history. It has a happy ending. For, as tragically as sin has disfigured our lives, just so mercifully and completely has God saved us in Jesus Christ. Adam and Eve could never have imagined what evils their disobedience would unleash on the world. Neither could they have imagined that God, the Almighty Creator, would take on flesh and die to bring the new life of the Resurrection.

We have stopped everything to gather here today. We are fasting and not eating meat to show that we mean to change. The God who knows our hearts sees how serious we are. We can never know just how deeply our sin has offended God nor how far our bad choices have rippled out and hurt others. Nonetheless, we can know how completely we are forgiven. Marked with ashes, we can live these next forty days leading up to Easter with a new commitment to turn things around with the strength God provides.

Saint Paul sums it up best in the second reading: "We beg you not to take the grace of God in vain. For he says, 'In an acceptable time I have heard you; on a day of salvation I have helped you.' Now is the acceptable time! Now is the day of salvation!"

(photo by Ian Britton)

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