The season of Lent is upon us. It is the time of sackcloth and ashes, as was donned by Job and his friends after he was struck by Satan with boils from head to foot. (cf. Job 2:8, 12) Mordecai and the Jews under king Xerxes put on sackcloth and ashes and mourned with fasting, weeping, and wailing when Haman issued the decree in the king’s name that all the Jews should be annihilated. (cf. Esther 4:1-3) And we heard earlier, the people of Nineveh fasted and put on sackcloth and ashes in a remarkable show of the efficacy of the Word of God when Jonah first set foot in the city and proclaimed, “Yet forty days, and Nineveh shall be overthrown!” (cf. Jonah 3:4-5) It is Ash Wednesday, so named from the processional antiphon sung on this day in the 6th century: Immutemur habitu in cinere et cilicio—let us don sackcloth and ashes. It was sung metaphorically as a sign of mourning over sin; no one really put on sackcloth and ashes.
And mourn you should do. “[D]ust you are, And to dust you shall return,” (Genesis 3:19) was the sentence pronounced over the first man whose name means earth or dirt. Created perfect in the image of God, and given life—“And the LORD God formed man of the dust of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and man became a living being” (Genesis 2:7)—this man transgressed God’s command and, in silence, permitted his wife to eat the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, eating from it himself as she gave him the fruit. “[I]n the day you eat of it you shall surely die.” (Genesis 2:17) Adam and Eve did not drop dead on the spot, but their lives were forever changed after eating from the tree.
Cast out of the Garden of Eden and cursed, their lives would be spent in toil and turmoil. These are the wages of sin. Brother would kill brother; man would fear for his life; sickness, disease, and anguish would be the order of the day—every day. No longer would man enjoy the presence of God; far from it, he would prefer NOT to be in God’s presence. It is a veritable death sentence. Oh yeah, and there is that, too: death—Adam would grow old in many years, and he died.
“And he died...” That short sentence or phrase occurs eight times in Genesis 5 as the generations from Adam to Noah are recounted for us, bearing for us the reality of the warning that God pronounced back in Genesis 2. Lives were changed—life was changed—no longer would man live forever in the presence of God in the Garden, with no end of days in sight. Now, man would look forward to the end of his days; man was born to die—this was the new natural order of things under the curse. Man was born dead! “[D]ust you are, And to dust you shall return.” They ate of the fruit that they were commanded not to, and in that day, they died, and their progeny after them.
So, don your sackcloth and ashes, if you wish, dear hearers, but don’t make a public spectacle of yourselves doing so. Mourn for the life that is yours which will end, but do not let the world know. When you take up the practice of fasting as part of your mourning ritual, wash your faces and keep your countenance up.
Moreover, when you fast, do not be like the hypocrites, with a sad countenance. For they disfigure their faces that they may appear to men to be fasting. Assuredly, I say to you, they have their reward. But you, when you fast, anoint your head and wash your face, so that you do not appear to men to be fasting, but to your Father who is in the secret place; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you openly.
Jesus tells us the same thing about works of charity and alms-giving and about praying. Do these things so not to be seen by men. You see, man is still dealing with and reeling from the sin of Father Adam. He like to puff you up, so that you feel better about yourself, and he does so by making sure your fellow sinner sees just how good and benevolent you are, how loquacious you can be in your prayers to whatever deity you want to believe in (but especially to the one, true God), and how you show your devotion by disfiguring yourself and starving yourself.
These are all fine disciplines, and you should be commended to them, but no one needs to know what you have done or what you are doing. Remember the sheep on the last day had no clue that they had done such good works because doing good works—even disciplines such as the ones in our Gospel—are not done to keep score. You do not do works of charity, pray, or fast in order to put another notch on your belt of sanctification. Such is the disease of sin which kills you—it seeks to tally all of your good works for you and present them as a fragrant burnt offering in order to please God. Of course, you know this, for it is as you have just spoken: “For thou desirest not sacrifice; else would I give it: thou delightest not in burnt offering. The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit: a broken and a contrite heart, O God, thou wilt not despise.” (Psalm 51:16-17, KJV)
A broken and contrite heart is not despised by your Father in heaven. It is such a heart that attends to these works of charity and prayer and most especially to fasting and mourning. This heart is not broken and contrite in and of itself, as if to gain from God some favor and forgiveness by fasting, mourning, praying, and works of charity. Such a heart fasts and mourns because it is broken by having been enslaved in sin and bound in chains. Such a heart is contrite because it knows its lost condition and the pangs of death which ever loom over it—the wages of sins: pain, disease, anguish, worry, chaos, and death.
But you, dear Baptized, are set apart from these things. Oh, to be certain, they still affect you. You still suffer from the wages of sin, and so by God’s grace you are given a broken and contrite heart. But you are also given a heart that has joy in the knowledge that is your salvation for the sake of the suffering, death, and resurrection of the Son of God, your Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. Your heart rejoices simply in this: that you have stored up for you treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust destroys, nor thieves break in and steal. And from this, then, not toward it, does the broken and contrite heart fast, mourn, pray, and do works of charity—because forgiveness, life, and salvation are freely offered you for the sake of Jesus Christ, in spite of the heavy burden of your sin, death, and the devil, which weight are removed from it by Jesus Christ in His passion and death.
You see, in His omnipresent foreknowledge, God knew before the foundation of the world that by the sin of one man, all of creation would be thrown into disarray, that you would suffer and die on account of his sin and your own sins. And So, He had in mind before He ever said one “Let there be,” just how He was going to save you, rescue you, redeem you back to Himself. He would send the Seed of the woman to crush the serpent’s head, even as His own heel would be bruised (cf. Genesis 3:15), and die for the sins of man—for you—that He would take on the flesh and blood and death of Adam, and bear it all for you! And so you hear from th e pen of St. Peter,
[Y]ou were not redeemed with corruptible things, like silver or gold, from your aimless conduct received by tradition from your fathers, but with the precious blood of Christ, as of a lamb without blemish and without spot. He indeed was foreordained before the foundation of the world, but was manifest in these last times for you who through Him believe in God, who raised Him from the dead and gave Him glory, so that your faith and hope are in God. (1 Peter 1:18-21)
You also hear from the pen of St. Paul,
Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places in Christ, just as He chose us in Him before the foundation of the world, that we should be holy and without blame before Him in love, having predestined us to adoption as sons by Jesus Christ to Himself, according to the good pleasure of His will, to the praise of the glory of His grace, by which He made us accepted in the Beloved. (Ephesians 1:3-6)
Jesus was foreordained before the foundation of the world to be your Savior; therefore, you were chosen in Him before the foundation of the world. Many may want to know why. If God knew before the foundation of the world that Adam would disobey and throw us all into sin, why did God create him? Why did God plant that tree in the midst of the Garden? These are questions best left unanswered. However, we rejoice that, because God knew this, He sent His Son, “born of a woman, born under the law, to redeem those who were under the law, that we might receive the adoption as sons.” (Galatians 4:4-5)
That is the reality you bear on your brows as you make your way throughout the sinful world. For there, upon your forehead and breast, you have been marked with the sign of the cross to set you apart as one redeemed by Jesus Christ the crucified. So, while you mourn over your sin in sackcloth in ashes with fasting, even if only metaphorically, you bear in your countenance the joy over One who has taken on your flesh and blood, called you friend, and laid down His life for yours so that you may be with Him for eternity. (cf. John 15:13) You bear in your countenance hope over the fact that what was once lost in Eden because of Adam is restored to you now, not yet in Jesus Christ, the second Adam:
For since by man came death, by Man also came the resurrection of the dead. For as in Adam all die, even so in Christ all shall be made alive. The body is sown in corruption, it is raised in incorruption. It is sown in dishonor, it is raised in glory. It is sown in weakness, it is raised in power. It is sown a natural body, it is raised a spiritual body. There is a natural body, and there is a spiritual body. And so it is written, “The first man Adam became a living being.” The last Adam became a life-giving spirit. However, the spiritual is not first, but the natural, and afterward the spiritual. The first man was of the earth, made of dust; the second Man is the Lord from heaven. As was the man of dust, so also are those who are made of dust; and as is the heavenly Man, so also are those who are heavenly. And as we have borne the image of the man of dust, we shall also bear the image of the heavenly Man. Now this I say, brethren, that flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of God; nor does corruption inherit incorruption. Behold, I tell you a mystery: We shall not all sleep, but we shall all be changed—in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet. For the trumpet will sound, and the dead will be raised incorruptible, and we shall be changed. For this corruptible must put on incorruption, and this mortal must put on immortality. So when this corruptible has put on incorruption, and this mortal has put on immortality, then shall be brought to pass the saying that is written: “Death is swallowed up in victory.”
“O Death, where is your sting?
O Hades, where is your victory?”
The sting of death is sin, and the strength of sin is the law. But thanks be to God, who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ. (1 Corinthians 15:21-22, 42-57)
This is the joyful reality that you take to your graves, for it is the joyful reality of you being taken out of your graves when Jesus returns to judge the quick and the dead. It is the joyful reality that you can bear on your countenance at all times, not done in secret—that washed face and anointed head. For you are washed in the waters of Holy Baptism, anointed in Christ to live forever with Him, for He is your light and your life. This is not something to be hidden, but always shown:
- “Let your light so shine before men, that they may see your good works and glorify your Father in heaven.” (Matthew 5:16)
- “[A]lways be ready to give a defense to everyone who asks you a reason for the hope that is in you, with meekness and fear...” (1 Peter 3:15)
This is your light and your life, this is your joy, the joy of your salvation, this is what you have been chosen to: the forgiveness of all of your sins. And where there is forgiveness, there is also life and salvation.