Today is a special time of the year. I’m talking about Spring Training, of course. It’s a time when baseball players get together to prepare for the long season ahead. It’s a time to get into shape, work on new skills, win new jobs, find a place on the team. It’s a time of promise at the end of bad weather: because a bunch of guys are playing baseball somewhere in the sunshine we know that soon they’ll be playing baseball in the sunshine here. It’s a time of hope; because at this time of year, it could always be our year.
We can look at Lent in many ways. It can be a time where we can get caught in the trap of doing penance for show. We can get caught doing penance to impress somebody, even if we’re only trying to impress ourselves. If I can give up TV for the whole of Lent, then I must be a good Christian; I must be special. If I can virtuously refuse every piece of chocolate that I’m offered during Lent, not only will I be a good Christian, but somebody else can be impressed at my discipline and self control. And of course, there’s the one upmanship, like a home run derby. We can top each other with what we’re giving up for Lent.
As we begin this season of Lent, we should remember that Christ is the one who has redeemed us, who has restored us to God by his death and resurrection. He had to do that: otherwise our distance from God is so great, our debt so large, it can never be paid off. It is through Christ‘s blood that we are redeemed, not through any penance we could do. The work of our salvation is done. That’s it. We don’t have to worry about making the team; we’re there.
So why do we need this season, why do we need to wear ashes? What’s the point of figuring out penances to do, or giving up things?
Let me offer this to you: because we have been redeemed by Christ, we have the opportunity to change our lives. It’s easy to get stuck in bad habits, we all do it. We do things that take us away from God; we take on priorities that conflict with the great choice we make to follow Jesus. We get lazy on Sunday morning. We choose to bring work home instead of spending time with family. We don’t spend time in quiet, we don’t spend time in prayer. We get hung up on what we’re doing and forget who we are. We let ourselves become vultures at work, thinking that we can leave it all behind when we come home at night. We let anger consume us; we let ancient wounds run our lives; we punish people for trifles done years ago day after day. The most persuasive thought is: better hanged for a sheep than a lamb. If you’re going to break the rules, break them good and hard. Once you’ve gone over the edge, you can’t go back.
But that’s not what Jesus tells us. Remember the number of people whose lives were transformed by his ministry. How about the paralyzed man to whom Jesus said: “Pick up your bed and walk?” How about the woman caught in adultery, or the woman at the well. Do you really think that they could go forth and avoid their sin? But Jesus tells us we can.
So what do we do during Lent? Lent is like Spring Training; it’s a time to practice the skills and the attitudes we need to be better Christians all year round. If we break training, we go right back in training the next day; that’s what ball players do if they want to make the team. We do things that will help us put things in the right order in our lives. We can believe that we don’t have to be ruled by our pasts. We can give up things that will focus our attention on the one who loves us. We can even work on reducing our credit card balance.
It’s also a time to remember that everything we do is fleeting, everything we do is like the ashes, here today and gone tomorrow. If we have legacy, it’s in what the team accomplishes. In baseball, individual accomplishments are remembered a little while, but the list of champions lasts. In faith, it’s not what we do individually in faith that’s remembered, but the work of Christ we take part in. Christ’s work is always remembered.
The prophet Joel says that now is the acceptable time, now is salvation. That is true not only today, but all year. We receive ashes today to tell us that now is the time. We receive ashes today to tell us that we don’t have to be ruled by our past. We receive ashes today as a sign of faith that Jesus who rose from the dead and saved us can help us change our lives. We receive ashes as a sign of hope; knowing that we will be living in the eternal light, and that hope gives us reason to believe we can change our lives now.