Today, we mark the beginning of Lent, the long, slow march toward Christ’s death on the cross. As I’ve been reflecting on these texts once again this week, I’ve found myself noticing just how many words we encounter this time of year that start with “re-”: repentance, regret, reconciliation, remission, return. Among these words, one word in particular grabbed my attention: the word “remorse.” When I read the word in Spanish – remordimiento – it occurred to me that the literal definition of “remorse” is actually “to bite again.” As it turns out, much like my cat, Lent is a season that bites.
During this season, we are bitten once again with regret and remorse. As we put away the “alleluia” and set ourselves to prayer and fasting and almsgiving, the uncomfortable truth about ourselves is revealed: we are weak. We have wandered away from God to follow after the idols of this world, idols like financial security and social standing and cultural comfort. These idols have seduced us with promises of health and wealth and long life. But when we return to God, we are confronted with the reality that none of these things can actually give us life. And so, like the people of Israel to whom Joel prophesied in our first reading, we weep and tremble with the realization that nothing in this world can save us from the inevitable.
Ash Wednesday is essentially a funeral day for the church, a funeral day for every single one of us. We are bitten once again by the sharp reminder of our own mortality. The ashes that will be smeared on our foreheads today are like the first shovelful of dirt landing on top of our caskets. Today we remember that we are frail creatures of clay. And, sooner or later, death will sink its teeth into us.
To be human is to die. And there is absolutely nothing we can do about it. Today we do our best to stare straight into the face of that awful reality, and to let it bite us once again. It is painful. I don’t doubt that every single person in this room has had their life touched by death in some way, whether it be the death of family members or the death of friends and neighbors or even their own battle with life-threatening illness and the slow creep of age. We all carry burdens of loss and grief. We all bear the scars of death’s sharp teeth.
Today we return to the foot of the cross, to sit in our own graves with our burdens and our scars; and it is here that we rediscover once again that this – the darkest and lowest point of human existence – this is exactly where God chooses to come and meet us. We walk the dark and painful road to the cross with God by our side every single step of the way.
God is not in any way removed or distant from our suffering. In fact, God is so determined to love us, despite ourselves, that God took on this dust of human flesh and came to earth as Christ. God willingly suffered the cross to show us that there is no barrier that can keep us from God’s love. In the midst of our grief and dying, Christ himself holds out his hands to us, to show us that he, too, has felt the bite of death. He shows us the marks of the nails in his feet, and invites us to put our hands in his side, to show us that the very body of the living God bears the scars of death’s teeth. God has responded to our brokenness and mortality by breaking death itself.
In response to our remorse and regret, God speaks some “re-” words of God’s own. God responds to our repentance with words like “renewal” and “redemption,” “restoration,” “reconciliation,” and even “resurrection.” In our gospel reading alone, Jesus utters the word “reward” no fewer than seven times! God pleads with us to return, to turn away from the fleeting promises of this world, and to trust that God’s redeeming love is stronger than the grave.
This is the whole point of Jesus’ words about hypocrisy in our gospel reading. If we perform acts of repentance, like praying and fasting and giving alms, but only do them for the reward of impressing other people, then we are setting our hopes far too low! If we bury ourselves in the busy-ness of our lives, if we only go after the rewards of careers and status and material possessions, then we risk missing out on the rewards that God has in store for us. Jesus reminds us that where our hearts are, there our treasure will be also.
In a similar way, the prophet Joel urges the people to rend their hearts and not their clothing. It’s not enough just to perform the outward signs of repentance and remorse. God isn’t impressed by empty rituals. God wants us to return with our whole hearts. God wants to show us that God is gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love. But we can’t see it if our hearts aren’t truly in it. God knows how deep our scars go, and it is only there, in the depth of our pain and grief, in the recognition of our own deep need, that we can truly hear God’s words of hope and life.
Today, we allow ourselves to be bitten once again by the reality of death, by the reality of our own failings and limitations. We begin the long journey of Lent, walking with Christ toward the cross. And we accept the invitation that Paul extended to the Corinthians in our second reading to be reconciled to God – because this, right now, is the acceptable time that Paul writes about; today is the day of salvation. This journey of Lent, and our journey of life, will lead us straight into the mouth of the grave, and yet it is the only path that will lead us into life. We are dying, and yet see that we are alive! We are sorrowful, and yet we are always rejoicing. We walk willingly, knowingly, into the very jaws of death, trusting that God goes with us with a love that is stronger than death.
So return to the Lord with all your heart, with fasting and weeping and mourning. Rend your hearts and not your clothing. Return to the Lord your God, for God is gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love. Amen.