Ash Wednesday

Wednesday, February 22, 2012 — Week of Last Epiphany, Year Two

Ash Wednesday

Today’s Readings for the Daily Office (Book of Common Prayer, p. 951)

Psalms 95* & 32, 143 (morning) 102, 130 (evening)

Amos 5:6-15

Hebrews 12:1-14

Luke 18:9-14 *for the Invitatory

“Happy are they whose transgressions are forgiven and whose sin is put away!” (Psalm 32:1)

These are the words from the psalmist to open our readings today. Ash Wednesday is a good day. A day of penitence, when sin is put away.

“I said, ‘I will confess my transgressions to God.’ Then you forgave me the guilt of my sin.” (Ps. 32:6)

Our gospel story gives us a picture of one who knows his weakness, failure and brokenness. “God, be merciful to me, a sinner!” says the tax collector, standing by himself in alienation in the holy temple. He will leave that place and return to the same corrupt work tomorrow that is his guilty burden today. Yet, Jesus tells his listeners that this tax collector “went down to his home justified.” He was restored to a right relationship to God, whether he realized it or not.

During our worship today, we will pray one of our tradition’s most powerful compositions of self-knowledge and confession, the Litany of Penitence (Prayer Book, p. 267). No one can read the words of the Litany consciously and not be struck to the heart. “God, be merciful to me, a sinner!” “Happy are they whose transgressions are forgiven and whose sin is put away!”

The Pharisee of our gospel reading is a man who has given his life to God, in discipline and thanksgiving. He prays gratefully that he has found this way of virtue and good living. But his pride blocks him from the justification that he assumes. When he looks at others and compares himself, he breaks the seamless garment that is God’s compassionate relationship and presence with all humanity.

Amos also reminds us of the corporate aspect of our call. We are not called simply as individuals to avoid sin and be a person of high morals. We are called to pursue justice as a society and nation, to “establish justice in the gate.” Amos decries the nation for being unresponsive to the needs of the poor while the wealthy live at ease. He condemns the bribes that the powerful use to advance their interests while the needy are ignored. Imagine what Amos would say to our American system of lobbying and influence peddling. These are sins that he insists we address before the Lord can possibly “be gracious to the remnant of Joseph.”

Ash Wednesday is a day when we are called to a solemn fast. We are to look at ourselves with conscious penitence. We are to confess, and to know our forgiveness. We are to take responsibility for our corporate brokenness and injustice. And we are to commit our selves to a new way, the disciplines of individual goodness and corporate reform.

Hebrews seeks to inspire us in that discipline. “Lift your drooping hands and strengthen your weak knees, and make straight paths for your feet… Pursue peace with everyone, and the holiness without which no one will see the Lord.”

We begin this day like the tax collector, seeking God’s mercy. Happily we embrace Lent’s call to discipline — to prayer, fasting and almsgiving. These are the tools that the Church commends to us for the healing of our souls and healing of the world’s injustice.

“Happy are they whose transgressions are forgiven and whose sin is put away!”

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