II Corinthians 5:16-6:2
If I might speak personally for a minute—perhaps as a kind of Lenten confession—sometimes I’m slow to catch on. Years ago some people in church circles were talking about a book titled The Burden Is Light. They were very excited about this book and it kept coming up again and again.
And I was confused. How, I wondered, is light a burden? What kind of burden could light be? Perhaps, I thought, the author was being playful, inviting us to consider, brightness, illumination and how they were actually no burden at all.
I never shared my puzzled thoughts with anyone, but one day, years later I hit me—the burden is light! It is easy to carry. It is something that can be borne. In sunshine or in shadows, the burden is light.
I’m slow to catch on but often quick to take on heavy yokes and weighty burdens that can take the lightness and happiness out of life: what Thomas Merton, the Christian monk who wrote in the middle of the last century said are things like the crushing load of worry and guilt, the dead weight of our own self-love.
And as Lent begins this year, I am tired.
I am tired of the cold and the wind.
I am tired of the snow that turns only to mounds of ice.
I am tired of hearing forecasts that say, “Snow is coming tomorrow,” as we hear once again in today’s weather report.
Listen again as Jesus speaks to all “who are weary and are carrying heavy burdens.” That’s me. And my guess is that in some way those words describe you and your neighbor here tonight. Maybe it’s the weather, maybe it’s something else, but we are tired, we are anxious, we are worried.
The burden is heavy.
We are the people Jesus addresses, slow to catch on even as he adds the promise: “I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls.”
Perhaps this is the word you wanted to hear this night—the word you needed to hear.
You know that Lent comes from a word that means “to lengthen.” It speaks of the longer hours of daylight that we notice with joy and gladness even as the cold wind beats against our faces.
In the cold of this year I remember that Lent has been called a “holy spring,” a time to seek healing after all that has beaten and battered us, a time for basking in the warm rays of God’s mercy. It is a time for us to give special attention to our status as creatures who live and move and have our being in an infinitely compassionate Creator.
We begin this holy spring, we start this season of “lengthening” on this day when, with our wintry hearts, we come seeking, as the hymn says, “Christ’s warm touch.” The emphasis of this day is on God’s mercy toward us and all creation. The lightness of the ashes of this day speaks to us of the light burden of the love of Christ.
Each year as Lent approaches, I am mindful of the deep Congregational reticence about Lent in general and Ash Wednesday in particular.
All time is sacred before God, and so we are wary of special days and seasons.
We are a scriptural people and we hear the words of Jesus gnaw at our consciences: “Beware of practicing your piety before others.” We don’t want to be hypocrites. Or at least we don’t want our hypocrisy to show.
We take seriously Calvin’s warnings against “the superstitious observance of Lent.”
The ashes of this day cause some consternation in our Protestant souls.
Yet, along with many other Protestants churches we slowly made our way to using ashes as a reminder of our mortality, as a sign of our origin and our destiny. The ashes that give this day its name remind us that we are dust and to dust we shall return.
We recognize that we are human—a word that reminds us of humus: earth, soil. That has certainly been a recurring theme around here in the past two months as we have considered our place as one kind of creature among all of creation and our unique human calling to care for this earth. We find meaning and hope for our lives in the affirmation that the God who created us from dust is the One who breathes the very Spirit of life into us. The season of Lent gives us time to affirm this reality once more.
And affirming that we dust and that to dust we shall return does give an urgency to what we do while here on this earth—not a desperateness, but an urgency. It allows us to hear Paul’s invitation, “Be reconciled to God” in a new way. Now is the day of salvation—the moment when we might receive the fullness of life that we seek. Now is the time to turn once again to God who is the source of that life.
We use ashes, yes—but not because we embrace an empty ritual. Protestants have always announced that what is important is not some outward display but God’s mercy and God’s forgiveness made real in our lives.
We use ashes, yes—and we recognize that there is nothing magical about these ashes. They were made by burning some of last year’s palm branches, crushing the ash, and mixing it with a little oil. Palm leaves, I’ve learned, burn very quickly. In that, they call to mind our own brief lives. Ashes are, as I said, light. They remind us that, as Merton said, “Love makes our burden light and happy.” They point toward the forgiveness that God offers, the forgiveness that we desire. They point toward the tender mercy of God, the mercy that we seek, the mercy that we find.
We use ashes, yes—and the ashes we receive put in solidarity with those living in dust and ashes. At any time, and especially tonight, our worship is not complete unless it forges a deeper bond between us and those who are hungry and hurting, those who live with violence and warfare, those who are poor or despised. Because of that renewed connection we are sent out from here to bring God’s reversal of fortune, God’s justice and healing to people who sit in ashes and weep. We are sent to repair the ruined cities and the places of devastation.
At the same time, tonight, and through the whole season of Lent, our eyes are fixed, not simply on injustice, suffering, and death. We look further ahead and move toward the new possibilities that God is creating in us through the resurrected Christ. By taking up the light burden of love, we might become those who fulfill the prophet’s hope and give a garland instead of ashes, the oil of gladness instead of mourning, the mantle of praise instead of a faint spirit.
So we have ashes—for those who desire them, for those who need them—but being true to our tradition and our congregational covenant, we don’t force them on anyone. It is as good to go through this day without ashes as with them. We have ashes to help us remember our common humanity and the love that is our origin and our destination. We have ashes to serve as a reminder of God’s great compassion for us and for all creation.
This year, let Lent speak to you of the strength that is found when we are weak, weary, and worn out. This year, let Lent speak to you of the new creation that God is making in us and among us even though we are often slow to catch on, slow to welcome the new, slow to give up our heavy loads for the burden that is light.