In a few days, on Wednesday of this coming week, Lent will begin. In the spiritual experience of the prophet Isaiah that is recounted in the first reading of this Sunday’s liturgy we have a kind of template, a model for the meaning of Lent. We see Isaiah first in the presence of the Almighty, acknowledging that he is a “man of unclean lips in the midst of a people of unclean lips.” Then follows the angel touching a burning ember to his lips. Finally, the experience ends with Isaiah saying, “Send me.”
Lent is first of all about owning up to having “unclean lips,” a symbol of the sinfulness of the whole person. Lents begins with this confession. The roots of Lent are found in the great debate in the early Church about whether a Christian who has seriously sinned after baptism could be reconciled to God and the community of the Church. There were two groups in dispute. The opinion of the first was “Absolutely not!” The Baptismal vows were seriously broken and the offender was excluded forever. The other group was more moderate, remembering the words of Jesus about mercy and forgiving, even seventy times seven. The moderates won the argument in that period of the Church.
The proposed resolution was this: the Christian sinner could be reconciled, but only once in his or her lifetime. The path to reconciliation was to be a public confession (the sins involved were already public, e.g., adultery, idolatry, murder, etc.) in the presence of the Church community and its leader. This confession of sin is echoed in the second reading of the liturgy today in Paul’s admission to being the worst of sinners who persecuted the Church of Christ. It is also reflected in the words of Peter in the Gospel, “Depart from me, for I am a sinful man.” The public sinner was then “marked” by having to wear special penitential clothing and standing at the door of the Church to beg for the prayers of the faithful. Here we see the beginning of the tradition of Ash Wednesday.
Lent is also about the touch of the burning ember to the lips of Isaiah. That represents the “ouch” of Lent. The public sinner in the early Church was given a life-long, severe penance that in some way addressed the sin (e.g., never eating meat again, refraining from sexual relationship with the spouse, etc.). The repenting sinner was given a period of forty days to “practice” the penance, to demonstrate sincerity. This developed into the season of Lent. (While the reconciliation process was occurring during this period, the catechumens were also preparing for Baptism at the Easter Vigil.) The sinners presented themselves again to the Bishop and community for absolution on Holy Thursday, thus preparing the way for the Easter celebration as a kind of “second Baptism” for those seeking reconciliation. But the penance continued until death.
Finally, Lent is about the “Send me” declaration of Isaiah. Every purification from sin is really oriented to re-assuming one’s place in the mission of God in the world. St. Paul refers to this today as the “hard toil of preaching” and the Apostles expressed the same when they “left everything and followed him.”
As our Lent begins on Wednesday, we are marked on the forehead with ashes. This is much more than a simple act of Catholic piety and devotion. It is a statement before the whole community that we recognize ourselves—and want everyone else to recognize us—as people of “unclean lips,” as sinners. We impose a Lenten penance on ourselves that is more than a conventional gesture of mortification or sacrifice. Giving up chocolates or TV is not bad, but the Lenten penance should be directly related to our sin. It wants to repair our past in some way and equip us for a future that is new. Our penance is the “ouch” experience of Lent.
Perhaps one or another of us wonders whether any real change is possible for us, whether we can be reborn again in God’s grace. We need only to recall the words of St. Paul about the great grace of God to one who was the greatest of sinners and persecutor of the Church of Christ. We need only to remember the fishing incident in today’s Gospel when Jesus asks a reluctant Peter to put down his nets into deeper water for a catch. Peter was not inclined to do that because, to him, there were no more fish! But there are always fish! There is always the possibility of new life in God’s love for any of us.
Lent leads to Easter, to the renewal of the Baptismal promises, to recommitting to the work of the Kingdom given to each of us in his or her own life. The celebration of Easter after the “ouch” of Lent sends us back into work for the Kingdom of God.
The quality of our Lent is meant to have enormous impact on my own person. There can be important change in me. But Lent also impacts the integrity of the Church and its mission. Through the experience of Lent, I become more of my best self and, therefore, the Church becomes powerful for its work. And the condition of the world is also changed my good Lent. My sin deprived the world of some goodness. My repentance gives it a better chance to know Christ and be inspired to love and justice.
So, Lent begins with the “Woe is me!” of Isaiah and continues with the “ouch” of the burning ember of penance to unclean lips. Lent finishes, finally, with the renewal of Baptismal life and mission.
When any of us steps forward this Ash Wednesday to be marked with the ashes, this is its meaning.