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Lent is that time when we all-too-worldly ones learn and relearn the great scandal that lies at the heart of the Christian faith — Christ came to save sinners, only sinners.
Much of the time we get away with the fiction that we are, after all, down deep, rather nice people who have no need of salvation. We know we may not be the best people in the world, but we are not the worst. We are making spiritual progress, lifting ourselves (by ourselves) out of the muck and mire of what once was called “sin.”
And then comes the church smearing ashes upon our foreheads, forcing us to our knees in confession, teaching us to say, “Lord, have mercy, Christ have mercy upon us sinners.”
That’s not something many of us want the church to do anymore.
Years ago, we had the popular spiritual writer Thomas More come to speak at Duke. More is a very nice man who believes that we are all rather nice people, and if we just learn to think about ourselves as he thinks about us, we would be ever so much happier. On the way out of More’s rather vague self-help homily, I encountered a woman who said to me, “I’m so glad next week is Ash Wednesday.”
Glad for Ash Wednesday? I pressed for more. She responded, “You don’t know me that well, but I was the victim of sexual abuse by a relative when I was a young teenager. Spent years in therapy trying to get over it. Pop-spirituality and feel-good religion were just no help to me. That’s why I’m glad that we are coming to that time of the year when the church makes us put all the injustice, sin, blood and guilt on the altar and forces us to look at it and let God deal with it.”
Rejoice. It’s Lent. This is when the poor, old, bumbling church courageously reminds us of the joy of letting go of our illusions about ourselves. We offer our lives not to a God with high standards of conduct, but to a God who loves us as we are and forgives the worst in us.
My favorite theologian, Karl Barth, said that “only Christians sin.” He meant that only Christians know the joy of a God who forgives and thus can be frank about their sin. There is a sense in which awareness of God’s grace comes before, and not after, true and honest repentance. The person who doesn’t know a gracious God can never be truly honest about sin.
Sit quietly for a moment and dare to delve into today’s horrific headlines – or, if you really want to be bold, consider your own selfish, cheating little heart — and you are liable to be overwhelmed, defeated by guilt and shame. An honest look at yourself leaves you only one option: self-deceit.
That’s when Christians give thanks that, in Jesus Christ, we know the truth about God. We know that God loves, forgives, and embraces sinners.
The great Christian apologist C. S. Lewis was once asked why so many people who are atheists are such really good people.
Lewis responded, “Well, they have to be good, don’t they? If you don’t believe in a God who forgives, you are damned to unrelenting goodness.”
In our lamenting of our sins, there is also room for joy. In the gospel reading for Ash Wednesday, Matthew 6:16-17, Jesus instructs us (strangely) that when we fast, when we repent of our sin, we are not to show sad, remorseful faces and make a big deal of our mournful repentance. Jesus tells us that we are to prepare ourselves as if for a party. We are to rejoice that the God whom we presumed to be our enemy is really our best friend.
Give thanks that the God whom we presumed to be unwilling to do business with sinners such as us has embraced us, forgiven us, even died for us sinners, only sinners.
“Why should men love the church?” asks T. S. Eliot. “Because she tells them of sin and death and other unpleasant facts of life they would as soon forget.”
We don’t think of Ash Wednesday as one of the happiest, most joyful services of the year, but maybe we should.