It all suggests that outward signs are not important. But the bigger picture across the whole Bible is that there is a place for outward signs (bread and wine being the obvious example) as long as those outward signs match what’s going on in our hearts.
So it’s not enough to turn up to church on Ash Wednesday, get a cross marked on our heads and then give up chocolate or alcohol for Lent. This season invites us to enter into 40 days of serious self-examination. Just as our confession invites us to the same Sunday by Sunday.
At this time of year, I am often tempted to make this season all about my individual piety. This is a time of year when I can be a proper Christian because I’m feeling what it means, in the Prayer Book’s language, to be a ‘miserable offender’. But that misses the point of Lent.
First, it misses the point because this is a season of grace, not of condemnation. As the same reading from Joel assures us: God 'is gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love, and relents from punishing’ (Joel 2:13). The context for this season is God’s mercy. Jesus’s time in the desert and the struggles he went through there were in the light of the assurance and affirmation he’d received at his baptism: you are my beloved child, in whom I am well-pleased (Matthew 3:17, Mark 1:11, Luke 3:22). The dismissal Gospel on Ash Wednesday assures us that God’s response to our self-examination is not condemnation but joyful celebration. ‘There will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous people who need no repentance.’ (Luke 15:7)
Second it misses the point because this is not just a season for individual repentance. We come together on Ash Wednesday.
Blow the trumpet in Zion;
sanctify a fast;
call a solemn assembly;
gather the people.
Sanctify the congregation;
assemble the aged;
gather the children,
even infants at the breast.
Let the bridegroom leave his room,
and the bride her canopy.
In the face of a plague of locusts, and facing their own demise, the people come together and seek God. This is a source of hope — you can only turn to God because you discern God’s presence among you. God is in the midst of God’s people. We don’t face locusts, but we do face the reality of our demise. For those of us involved in more traditional forms of church, we cannot escape the reality in front of us, we are dying out. Our congregations are shrinking and ageing. But in the face of this plague of apathy, we should not despair. Rather we do as God invites us through the prophet: ‘return to the Lord, your God, for he is gracious and merciful’ (Joel 2:13).
Lent prepares us for Holy Week and Easter. The central story of our faith makes it plain that even though we may not escape death as individuals or communities, it is not the last word. So let us come together with joy and honesty in this season of Lent, able to face the truth of who we are. There may be sorrow in that, but never despair, because in our journey through our individual and corporate deserts we draw close to the One who says:
Do not be afraid; I am the first and the last, and the living one. I was dead, and see, I am alive for ever and ever (Revelation 1:17-18)