February 17, 2021 / Ash Wednesday / Richard Holmer
1st Reading Joel 2:1-2, 12-17 / 2nd Reading 2 Corinthians 5:20b-6:10 / Gospel Matthew 6:1-6, 16-21
Make Love Your Aim
Ash Wednesday can cause a person to pause and consider. We are reminded that we are dust, and to dust we shall return. In light of this sobering reality, how then shall we live? In this time of pandemic, when many are dying – and many more are grieving their deaths – it may seem unnecessary to speak about our human mortality. Each day the news reports the increasing number of those who have died. More than the grim statistics, it is the personal stories of those individuals who have been lost that are deeply moving. And yet, most of us will likely survive this pandemic. The death toll is staggering and tragic – yet over 99% of us will be spared. Eventually, as vaccines are widely distributed, the threat will diminish, and life will get a lot closer to normal. When that time comes, it will be a great blessing. However, the larger truth will remain unchanged: we will still be dust, destined to return to dust.
Thank God for science and medicine and vaccines – but ultimately, no vaccine can save any of us. Only love can do that. This is the other fact Ash Wednesday invites us to remember. You and I are mortal, yes – our days are numbered. Yet know this as well: We have a God who is gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love. Our Lord is full of compassion and mercy, slow to anger, and of great kindness. Our plight is not unknown or insignificant to God: As a father cares for his children, so does the Lord care for those who fear him. (Why?) For he himself knows whereof we are made; he remembers that we are but dust.
On this day when we are reminded that our earthly lives have a definite endpoint, let us also remember that the gracious love and mercy of God never come to an end. We are not doomed or forsaken. The God who raised Jesus from the dead has promised to do the same for you and me. Death is real and formidable. And love is real – and even more powerful than death. Love endures – and love is finally what matters most.
How then shall we live? Simply put, we can all get better at loving.
Because our time is not unlimited, we can make the most of the time we have. No better way to do this than by growing to be more loving. We can regret wasted time and selfish endeavors – we will never regret what we do in love.
Because this world and everyone in it (including us) is broken and divided by sin – love is our highest priority. We all have room to grow in following Christ’s commandment to love one another as he loves us. This is not a project – it’s an attitude: aiming to live with the mind and heart of Jesus.
Can you imagine how your life would improve if you managed to grow even a small amount in your capacity for love? Can you picture how our life together would be transformed if we got just a bit closer to making loving one another our highest aim?
A simple and helpful prayer for all of us to pray in this season of Lent comes from Psalm 51:
Create in me a clean heart, O God, and renew a right spirit within me.
We can ask God to create in us hearts that are set to be loving, merciful, compassionate and gracious. We can apply our hearts to loving the God who is the source of our life; to loving the world God gives us to care for and enjoy; loving all the persons with whom we are blessed to share our time on earth; loving even ourselves – despite all our faults, inadequacies and contradictions – because if Jesus loves us enough to die for us, then we can love ourselves as well.
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Recognizing our mortality can clarify what truly matters – and what does not. Jesus warns against storing up treasures here on earth – wasting time and energy on things that won’t last. We need to set our hearts on true and lasting treasure – where real joy is found – setting our hearts on God, on God’s will – and God wills that we grow in love.
May it be so.