Almighty and everlasting God, you hate nothing you have made and forgive the sins of all who are penitent: Create and make in us new and contrite hearts, that we, worthily lamenting our sins and acknowledging our wretchedness, may obtain of you, the God of all mercy, perfect remission and forgiveness; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen (BCP p. 264)
This is my first Ash Wednesday as a non-parochial priest in over 9 years, and I realized midday today that I had to be much more intentional about Ash Wednesday and Lent this year than I have had to be in a while. I don’t have the external structure of three Ash Wednesday services, a labyrinth to tend, or a Lenten Quiet Morning and sermons to prepare. The first thing that floated into my mind after this realization was “Almighty and everlasting God, you hate nothing you have made, and forgive the sins of all who are penitent: Create and make in us new and contrite hearts….”
I couldn’t believe that this what had floated into my mind. For a while I have been struggling with the penitential language in so much of our Episcopalian liturgy that emphasizes our wretchedness as human beings. I had only heard the second part of the collect, with which I still struggle, but I had forgotten the first part: “God, you hate nothing you have made.” This leapt out at me this year. With all the contrition language, we can so easily forget that we were actually created in the image and likeness of God, and that we, and all creation are inherently GOOD. Our sin is that we do not recognize this goodness. What if we ALL REALLY believed in the inherent goodness of : ourselves, each other, and all of God’s creation? Yes, we are dust, and to dust we shall return, but we are dust into which God breathed life: complicated, glorious, messy, beautiful life.
This is the messy beautiful creation in which a broken sidewalk makes a heart, reflecting love for anyone who will notice.
Don’t get me wrong, I believe in sin. I think all of us do it, and for each one of us, it looks different. I wonder if, most of us, either: think that we are God, or think that we are less than we really are. When we think that we are God, we think we can control everything, when we really can’t. When we think that we are “less than,” it is very easy to think of others and everything else as “less than”. Whatever it is, we all have something that keeps us from fully seeing and knowing God. Lent is a time to let of the things we hold onto to keep us from fully seeing. Lent is time to practice a new way of being in the world which hopefully helps us draw nearer to the heart of God.
What if we re-wrote the collect to be something like this:
Compassionate and Loving God, you have made us, and all creation in your image. You delight in your creation, and you grieve when we don’t recognize the goodness which you have created, when we harm ourselves, each other and our world. You rejoice when in recognizing our separation from you, we choose to return to you. Help us to discover that which separates us from you. Give us the strength and courage to let it go, so that we may discover within us, the deep beauty and love reflected all around us, through you who created us, Jesus, our redeemer and the Holy Sprit, who sustains us, now and always, AMEN.