“Even now,” declares the Lord, “return to me with all your heart, with fasting and weeping and mourning.”
Rend your heart and not your garments. Return to the Lord your God, for he is gracious and compassionate, slow to anger and abounding in love, and he relents from sending calamity. Who knows? He may turn and relent and leave behind a blessing— grain offerings and drink offerings for the Lord your God.
Blow the trumpet in Zion, declare a holy fast, call a sacred assembly. Gather the people, consecrate the assembly; bring together the elders, gather the children, those nursing at the breast. Let the bridegroom leave his room and the bride her chamber. Let the priests, who minister before the Lord, weep between the portico and the altar. Let them say, “Spare your people, Lord. Do not make your inheritance an object of scorn, a byword among the nations. Why should they say among the peoples, ‘Where is their God?’”
Then the Lord was jealous for his land and took pity on his people.
Psalm 51:3-6, 12-14, 17
Have mercy on me, O God, according to your unfailing love; according to your great compassion blot out my transgressions. Wash away all my iniquity and cleanse me from my sin.
For I know my transgressions, and my sin is always before me. Against you, you only, have I sinned and done what is evil in your sight;
Create in me a pure heart, O God,
and renew a steadfast spirit within me.
Do not cast me from your presence
or take your Holy Spirit from me.
Restore to me the joy of your salvation
and grant me a willing spirit, to sustain me.
Open my lips, Lord,
and my mouth will declare your praise.
2 Corinthians 5:20—6:2
We are therefore Christ’s ambassadors, as though God were making his appeal through us. We implore you on Christ’s behalf: Be reconciled to God. God made him who had no sin to be sin for us, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.
As God’s co-workers we urge you not to receive God’s grace in vain. For he says,
“In the time of my favor I heard you, and in the day of salvation I helped you.”
I tell you, now is the time of God’s favor, now is the day of salvation.
Matthew 6:1-6, 16-18
“Be careful not to practice your righteousness in front of others to be seen by them. If you do, you will have no reward from your Father in heaven.
“So when you give to the needy, do not announce it with trumpets, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and on the streets, to be honored by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward in full. But when you give to the needy, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, so that your giving may be in secret. Then your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you.
“And when you pray, do not be like the hypocrites, for they love to pray standing in the synagogues and on the street corners to be seen by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward in full. But when you pray, go into your room, close the door and pray to your Father, who is unseen. Then your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you.
Valentine’s Day has come and gone, and we’ve all had the opportunity to observe the antics of the various couples in our lives and on our social media platforms. Some find the day important to observe, whereas others prefer not to acknowledge it, thinking they should be showing each other affection all year and not just on an appointed day. Some are more private and show their affection in simple token ways, while others prefer grand gestures and public displays. Some are on solid ground in their relationship and celebrating the fact, while others may be barely holding on and trying to make things better, possibly taking the holiday as an opportunity.
Following on Valentine’s Day’s heels this year, Ash Wednesday is an opportunity for all, coupled or uncoupled, to do something about the most important relationship in their lives; the relationship with God. Like our Valentine’s Day couples, we may find this day more or less meaningful; may gravitate toward private or public observances and token or larger scale sacrifices; feeling like we’re in a good place in our walk with God or like we have work to do in this relationship.
Our scriptures remind us that, whatever our mindset or our actions, what is important is that we turn to God with all our hearts. While we should not confine our penance and piety to a single day, it is an important opportunity, an acceptable time, to pay special attention to renewing our sorrow for our sins and striving for stronger love of God and holiness. There are times and places for grand gestures and public declarations, and public acts of penance, lament, and piety are acceptable to God at times and places. But we know that the couples who act the most demonstrative in public and on social media don’t necessarily have the best relationships; the truly happy ones are the ones that communicate well and show each other love and respect for each other’s sake, behind closed doors and when there is no audience. So Jesus reminds us that our relationship with God is not made strong by outward show; it is made strong by constant inward communicating, effort, and love, strictly for God’s own sake and not for who may be watching. And usually the closer we come to God, the more keenly aware we become of our imperfections and inability to truly love as He loves us. But we can celebrate the access we have through God’s mercy, and accept the salvation and help Jesus offers us to recommit ourselves to God and improve our relationship.
Going into Lent, where is my relationship with God? Where am I lacking in love or closing myself off to His grace? How do I need God to take pity on me and help me? What can I do this Lent to recommit myself to God and grow in my relationship with my Father in heaven?
Today, as we go through the public rituals of Ash Wednesday and brace ourselves for the austerity of Lenten fasting, let’s also privately connect with our loving Father in prayer and remember that our sacrifices are meant to demonstrate not will power, but love.