Texts: Joel 2:1-2, 12-17 + Psalm 51:1-17 • 2 Corinthians 5:20b-6:10 • Matthew 6:1-6, 16-21
A week ago tonight my third godchild was born. Kai Gajilan Fowler, born on Wednesday, February 15th at 6:09pm. In her short week on earth, she is already the subject of hundreds of photographs, and each one convinces me that she is the most beautiful little girl I have ever seen. I felt exactly the same last year when my godson, Gabriel Benfield, was born; and I felt the same way almost 24 years ago when my first goddaughter, Katie Russell, was born. To be honest, each time I have the privilege of baptizing a child – infant or adult – I am struck by how beautiful they are.
In the first reading appointed for Ash Wednesday, the prophet Joel describes a moment of terror in the life of Israel, a day of darkness and gloom. His response is to urge the people to call an assembly and sanctify a fast. He says, “gather the people. Sanctify the congregation; assemble the aged; gather the children, even infants at the breast.” (Joel 2:16)
The infants show up again in Psalm 51, traditionally attributed to King David and associated with a moment of confession when he’d been caught in his wickedness. He writes, “Indeed, I was born steeped in wickedness, a sinner from my mother’s womb.” (Ps. 51:5) Though this Psalm is written from the perspective of one person, when we sing it as an assembly we put King David’s words on our own lips and we are drawn into consideration of our own sinfulness.
Were we born steeped in wickedness, sinners from our mothers’ wombs?
I recall an evening almost a decade ago, sitting around a table in a pub back in my hometown of Des Moines, Iowa with a friend from childhood who’d grown up in the church, but who was not raising her children as Christians. In particular, she objected to this idea that her children – who are every bit as beautiful as my three godchildren – were somehow born in sin. She said, “look at them! How can you ask me to believe that these beautiful children were born with any kind of taint at all?! They are pure. They are goodness and joy, and I want to keep them that way as long as I can. I want to protect them from all the negative messages they’ll one day internalize, starting with this one.”
That desire to deny the presence of sin in those we love the most – our infants, our children – is so understandable. They are the closest we may ever come to pure love or pure joy. They are the essence of purity, and any attempt to assign sin to them seems like the real blasphemy.
As I sat in the waiting room with my goddaughter’s two mothers and one of her grandmothers, I pulled out my favorite book of Irish blessings and read one to my friend as she finished her final hours of labor. The book is To Bless the Space Between Us, by the Irish poet and author John O’Donohue. It was a gift to me one Christmas from my own mother. I was able to read the blessing For a Mother-to-Be, but before I could read the blessing As a Child Enters the World, the doctors came in and the heavy labor began. If I could have read the blessing to Kai on her birthday, she would have heard these words,
If my destiny is sheltered / May the grace of this privilege / Reach and bless the other infants / Who are destined for torn places.
If my destiny is bleak, / May I find in myself / A secret stillness / And tranquility / Beneath the turmoil.
May my eyes never lose sight / Of why I have come here, / That I never be claimed / By the falsity of fear / Or eat the bread of bitterness.
In everything I do, think, / Feel, and say, / May I allow the light / Of the world I am leaving / To shine through and carry me home.
That rich Irish blessing is, perhaps, the most beautiful meditation on the sinfulness of our world that touches even the lives of our infants as they are being born. Some are born sheltered, others into bleakness. And in truth, each of us will experience shelter and bleakness in our lives, but not equally. We are born into a world of inequalities and injustices. We are born into a body of life already broken, a fabric of being already torn. None of us comes into the world whole.
I have been meeting with more visitors to St. Luke’s in the last six months than I did in the entire previous year. Many of them have children they are looking forward to having baptized. I’m looking forward to baptizing them – though not until Easter comes. These forty days that begin tonight have been used by the church over the centuries to prepare people for baptism in a process called the catechumenate. We’ll be recapturing that emphasis on baptismal preparation throughout the season of Lent on Sunday mornings as we study portions of Luther’s small catechism each week, beginning this Sunday with Luther’s teaching on the Holy Sacrament of Baptism.
As we journey these forty days to the cross, you will be encouraged to keep up the disciplines we adopt tonight – the ancient Christian traditions of fasting, prayer and almsgiving. Too often, I think, we reduce these disciplines to a kind of renewal of our New Year’s Resolutions – a commitment to a kind of self-denial as a practice in empathy for the self-denial of Christ. That is fine and good, but I think the emphasis on the self misses the essence of what these disciplines are trying to shape in us.
These three disciplines are not separate options on a menu of spiritual practices, but rather pieces of a whole. During the season of Lent we are drawn to consider how, in the poet’s words, “the grace of this privilege [may] reach and bless the other infants who are destined for torn places.” We make the idea of that privilege concrete and real by choosing something common from our routine habits and fasting from that item throughout these forty days. In my case, I might choose coffee or dessert – but not because they are bad for me – instead because they are luxuries I take for granted. Then, as the forty days progress, each time I crave the cup of coffee or the dessert, I use that desire to remind me to stop and to pray for those whose lives do not afford the luxuries I take for granted. Finally, I give alms, I make an offering, I give the equivalent of what I would have spent on coffee or dessert (you fill in the blank here) to help create relief for those who suffer.
Do you see the difference? We’re not commending fasting, prayer and almsgiving as a self-oriented exercise in willpower. We’re inviting one another into these disciplines as a tangible exercise in compassion. What if I slip up and buy a cup of coffee, or dessert after dinner with friends? There is no failure of character here, no judgment of weakness. Instead there is simply an opportunity to be reminded, even then, of the ease with which we forget the suffering of those other children – young and old – whom God loves.
That, finally, brings us to the heart of these forty days. So often we do forget the suffering of those other children whom God loves. Not so for God. In the coming weeks we will follow behind Jesus, remembering his unwavering commitment to the poor and the suffering people of this world, a commitment that took him straight to the cross. As we purge our kitchens, as we silence our sanctuaries, as we empty out our lives; we are creating the space, the silence and the stillness in which we may be able once again to hear God’s voice calling us back to ourselves.
The time is now. Enter these forty days of Lent and return to the Lord your God. Return to yourself. In the stillness of this night, remember who you are and how deeply you are loved. As you are marked with these ashes, the sign that all life is fleeting, remember what you have been called to do with the time given to you, to “allow the light of the world [you] are leaving to shine through and carry you home.”