In just a minute, if you choose, you will receive the sign of the cross on your forehead. It’s a mark for us for our mortality, a mark of humility as we consider the transience of our lives and the changelessness of God. It also means that we will go from here with a mark on us. One of the few days that those of us in liturgical churches have a visible sign of our practices.
And it comes on a day when Jesus reminds us that outward signs should not be ends in themselves. “Beware of practicing your piety before others in order to be seen by them;” Jesus tells us in today’s gospel, “for then you have no reward from your Father in heaven.”
Don’t do all of these things, Jesus says – fasting, praying, giving money to the poor – don’t do all of these things to be noticed. If you’re noticed, if you do these things to build an image for yourself, then you’ve received your reward.
Instead, let these practices transform you from the inside. And we’ll start Lent in this liturgy with perhaps the hardest of these practices. With an account of our lives on the inside:
“Have I been less than I’ve wanted to be?” That’s how one theologian describes our task. Again his words: Have I been “Less loyal, less committed, less attentive, less generous, less willing than I should be to spend and be spent for the sake of what it means to follow Jesus?”
Have I been too sure of my own plan, and not willing to listen for a larger call?
We don’t ask these questions to create an impression, an image, for others to see; we ask because we seek new life, transformation, for ourselves and for the world. And it starts inside of us when we seek to dismantle the defensiveness over our own wrongdoing and short-sightedness, when we seek to dismantle the parts of us mired in grudge-holding, or when we seek to dismantle the blindness to our own abundance that traps us in the feeling that our resources and our love are not enough. And ultimately all of this is in the service of dismantling the barriers that keep us from knowing love, so that we can be receivers and transmitters of that same love.
This is the transformation of forgiveness – the transformation that we seek in our journey this Lent. It’s a change that takes the energy of pain, the energy of our sadness with the ways we fall short, and it transforms it into energy for new life, for love. It is sin and brokenness changed into the energy of love. That is the miracle of the cross towards which we move this Lent.
Our task in a few minutes, our task this Lent, is not assembling a laundry list of things we’ve done wrong. It’s not looking pious to impress ourselves. This is about finding what is keeping you from knowing God’s love – that’s what needs forgiveness. That’s what needs God’s acceptance, God’s transformation, God’s love.
And we can’t do any of this alone. One priest that I respect says that we’re not programmed for forgiveness – both giving and receiving forgiveness is foreign to us. Forgiveness is always the work of the Holy One.
“Whenever you pray,” Jesus tells us, “go into your room and shut the door and pray to your Father who is in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you.” And the reward for offering up our real selves, including the ways we fall short, the reward is realizing that we are the beloved of God. That is the journey towards new life – forgiven, freed, restored – new life as the beloved of God.
Lent is not a contest to see who can feel the worst about themselves, it’s not a contest to see who can find the most new stuff to do or old stuff to quit; if you do those things for some kind of outward Lenten box checking, then you’ve received your reward. Our journey is about offering up our truest selves, including the ways we fall short, offering up our selves for God’s forgiveness and transformation. Offering up our selves so that we will know that we are God’s beloved.
It is transformation that opens for us a way to experience the Holy and a way to be conduits of the Holy in the world.
And that makes penitence a right start of a holy Lent.