Words on the Word

Ash Wednesday

Joel 2:12-18: Between vestibule and altar, let the priests lament.
2 Corinthians 5:20-6:2: Be reconciled to God!
Matthew 6:1-6, 16-18: Your Father sees all that is done in secret.

Today’s reading from the Apostle Paul urges us: ‘Be reconciled!’ What does it mean? To be reconciled goes beyond settling an argument. To sweep an unpleasant event under the carpet and say, ‘Let’s pretend it never happened’, is not to be reconciled. Reconciliation is about the restoration of relationship. It enables restoration of trust where trust has been compromised by thoughtlessness, neglect, or cruelty. Reconciliation is never unilateral. It has to be two-sided, to be realised in dialogue. This can be difficult. First, the ground must be prepared. We may have to work hard just to speak to one who has hurt us deeply, or whom we have hurt.

We must have the courage to remember. We must revisit circumstances that caused a breakdown of friendship. This will involve opening doors we’d rather leave shut; letting light shine into darkness, so that what darkness hides may be revealed. I must remember for myself. I must also share the remembrance of the other, hearing it attentively, prepared to be surprised. The same incident can be experienced in such various ways by different people! It can be both enlightening and humiliating to learn how inadequate our own perspective is, how selfish we have been in our evaluation, how blind to the reality of others.

The reconciliation Paul calls for is above all a reconciliation with God. On God’s part, the groundwork is done. The covenant has been restored. In Christ, what was wounded has been healed. Paul summarises this saving work in a most remarkable way: ‘For our sake [God] made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.’ He made him to be sin! In this phrase, the scandal of the Cross is contained. The incarnation of the Word is removed from the romance of the manger, of the starlit night made sweet by angels’ song. We’re confronted with the work the Son of God came to perform. He came to save us. To do so, he assumed that from which we needed to be saved. He carried our sins, not just in the sense of assuming moral responsibility (as if to say, ‘I’ll repay your debts’); he carried them in his body; so close was the identification of his all-pure innocence with the accumulated weight of mankind’s filth, treachery, violence, greed, and pride that it is said of the sinless one: ‘he was made to be sin’. May it be granted us to know what this means, and to weep tears of remorse and gratitude in the face of the overwhelming love that made this assumption possible.

May we, in turn, assume our part and be reconciled. It is our programme for Lent. We have to recognise, first, what God has done for us. Next, we need to own our part in the ‘sin of the world’ that the Lamb of God forever takes away. This requires an examination of conscience we must perform together, as a Church, and alone, each for him or herself. Whether we’re capable of this is a test of maturity, of spiritual adulthood. How impossible it is for some to say, ‘I did it: it is my fault’! How tempting it is to yield to the age-old, infantile temptation to blame everyone else! By our presence at this Mass, by our participation in the penitential rite of the distribution of ashes, we proclaim our resolve to live and act as grown-ups. Let us, then, take the Apostle’s message to heart. Let us be reconciled to God this Lent. Let us be reconciled to any brother or sister from whom we have been estranged. Let us be reconciled to ourselves, to our lives as they have turned out. And so, by grace, may our lives stand as a sign of the grace Christ has wrought, to give strength, light, and courage to others, who struggle to find their way out of darkness. Amen.