You have seen the video – the awkward moment when producer Jordan Horowitz, Oscar in hand, finds out his film has in fact not won. How must it feel to read another’s name as he graciously handed over the coveted statue? In a moment, every producer’s greatest triumph instantly rendered tragedy.
Imagine yourself on stage at Hollywood’s pinnacle event, having finished your acceptance speech to your peers, and finding inside the envelope that another would go home with your win. Hold onto that agony and imagine how much greater the sorrow to discover one day that what our culture has sold us as a win, won’t, in fact, be inside the envelope. What a blow it would be not to receive the prize. Since one day each one of us will stand on the precipice of eternity, it is fitting to consider what the world tells us “wins”…
- Possessions: You’ve seen the bumper sticker. “He who dies with the most toys wins.”
- The prettiest wife or power husband. Eventually father time catches up with us all. No amount of power can add to our days when a bad diagnosis comes. As Jack Kinard joked, “I used to be who’s who. Now I’m who’s he?”
- Progeny (our kids). We work so hard to raise them…But living through our children is a recipe for their harm, often leaving them, in the words of Derek Zoolander, “disappointing younger versions of ourselves.”
I won’t offer argument against trusting in the world’s system, merely listing them exposes their inability to give the ultimate “win.” But if possessions, beauty, power, popularity or progeny don’t get the trophy, what will? After all, we don’t want to get to the final banquet and find we are holding the card for another’s celebration.
Ash Wednesday is that day each year set aside to think about our own mortality: our own funeral. We don’t much like to think about it, but we all know that one day our bodies will be admiring the lawn from the underside – that a day is coming when the ashes on our foreheads won’t have been made from burning last year’s Palm Sunday branches after the Shrove Tuesday supper. Contemplating the final banquet of our lives is uncomfortable, but it is holy work.
Thinking about our end ought to come easy to those of us who set goals-it is the ultimate long-range planning. It makes sense to make sure we are headed the right direction. How frustrating that Jesus critiques our attempts at living right on the journey. Jesus warns us that even our religiosity: our praying, our fasting and our giving is often done to be seen by others, heard by others, and praised by others. How sad that Jesus needs to warn us, “when you give, don’t sound a trumpet.” He is pointing out how easily our charity becomes charade. Then he warns, “when you pray, don’t pray to be seen by others.” How easily our prayer becomes self-promotion. He presses, “when you fast, don’t look all spiritual.” How effortlessly our fasting becomes flaunting. He cautions us not to hoard because of how quickly we trade his lasting treasure for tomorrow’s trash. Jesus holds up the mirror and pulls down the mask on our self-absorption.
It would be easy if “evil” was somewhere out there. But as Alexander Solzhenitsyn famously wrote, “If only there were evil people somewhere insidiously committing evil deeds and it were necessary only to separate them from the rest of us and destroy them. But the line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being. And who is willing to destroy pieces of his own heart?”
Solzhenitsyn’s diagnosis is exactly what Lent is: a chance to destroy those pieces in our own heart which oppose God. To root out in us that which wants to be God. To pluck up in our hearts that which continually thinks we can save ourselves.
Ash Wednesday is remembering that our need for a savior is not just a theory. It is an objective reality. I am not as good as I want to believe. Lent is 40 days of turning from…the bible calls that “repentance.”
But Lent is also 40 days of looking toward. Toward, not just to our final deliverance, but our deliverance here and now. A deliverance that only comes when we recognize our need…recognize, as the prayer book says, “that we do not come to this thy table O Lord, trusting in our own righteousness, but in thy manifold and great mercies.” (BCP, 337) Thomas Merton said, “The source of all sorrow is the illusion that of ourselves we are anything but dust.” But staring at our inability is the ultimate act of hope when it drives us into the arms of the one who is able.
The season of Lent that begins today is 40 days of anticipating the great acts of God on our behalf on that old rugged cross that first Easter. As a church family, we will use our Lent being shaped by a rhythm of prayer. Often we think of prayer as a 911 call, “only use in case of emergency.” But God wants us to trust, rely and depend on him moment by moment. That is why we will pray four brief times per day. We will flip the script from fitting God in around the edges of our lives, to fitting ours in around his. Remember, though, Jesus’ warning, that if we at all begin to get good at this, we will start doing it to be seen by others, heard by others, and praised by others. We are just that easily thrown back into our idolatry of the self. We won’t get it right. But we will give God more of us than he has right now. And it will be fantastic.
A disciple named Clement wrote to the church in Corinth some 50ish years after Paul wrote his letters, words of wisdom appropriate for us: “let us give up vain and fruitless cares, and …attend to what is good, pleasing, and acceptable in the sight of Him who formed us. Let us look steadfastly to the blood of Christ, and see how precious that blood is to God, which, having been shed for our salvation, has set the grace of repentance before the whole world… Let us yield obedience to His excellent and glorious will; and imploring His mercy and loving-kindness…forsake all fruitless labors, and strife, and envy, which leads to death, (and) let us turn and have recourse to His compassions.”
It is the compassion of God, friends, rather than the efforts of the self, that gives us the gift of the winning envelope. And if there be any name in our envelope on that final day other than the name of the author and perfector of our faith, then we have surely lost. Not just at that final day, but each and every day.
And so, as we allow our mortality to reveal our deep sinfulness, let it remind us to open the envelope and see: “In the category of savior of the world: The winner is…The Lord Jesus Christ!”
 Matthew 6:1-6, 16-21
 Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, The Gulag Archipelago, 168.
 Merton, Thomas, The Sign of Jonas, p. 27.
 Clement, First Letter to Corinth, chapts 7, 8, 9