It is often noted that there is a brilliant paradox of reading Jesus’ warning in the sermon on the mount, “Beware of practicing your piety before others in order to be seen by them” on a day when we literally wear the sign of the cross. Today, we will wear the cross, not silver-plated and beautifully designed, but we wear the cross of ashes smeared upon our foreheads by imperfect sinners who remind us all that we are dust and to dust we shall return. Naturally, it is easy to let this day feel somber and dark – it is hard to be reminded of the one thing that most of us spend our lives trying to forget: that we, yes, even we will die.
The paradox of Jesus’ warning, which should guide us not just today, but throughout our whole Lenten fast, is not the only paradox with which we are presented in today’s readings. The reading from 2 Corinthians presents to us a whole set of paradoxes that characterize the Christian life. In our Christian life we are unknown, and yet well known, we are dying, yet alive, we are sorrowful, yet always rejoicing. The whole of the Christian life is made up of these paradoxes; there are these paradoxes which operate for us all the time under the surface, some of which we are aware of, and some of which we are not.
As a fairly new Episcopalian, I still remember the first time I knew that I was in the right Christian tradition. I knew I was in the right place at the first funeral I attended; I knew I was in the right place, because as that community celebrated the life and mourned the death of a beloved matriarch of the church, held in tandem with our tears and our sadness was cries of alleluia and the colors and songs that resound when a new Christian is baptized. Our burial rite is careful to note the paradox that Paul puts forth here: we are dying, yet we are alive.
In our Christian lives, we are unknown, and yet well known. The God who created and loves us continually invites us into relationship; not because we’ve earned God’s love or because we put forth our best face, but because in our darkest moments it is God who knows us when we feel entirely unseen or unknowable.
In our Christian walk, we are sorrowful, yet always rejoicing. Sorrow is an emotion and an experience that can have undue weight, but it is occasionally good to be sorry. When we have committed wrongs against those we love, it is crucial to that relationship that we confess our wrong doings and make means to correct our path. We confess our sins and we make our sorrow known, but it is in this confession that we get the opportunity to embrace the joy that comes with being wholly and fully accepted, welcomed, and forgiven.
Before the author of 2 Corinthians goes through the list of paradoxes that punctuate our lives, he writes and asks that the community to be reconciled to God, and in their work together to not accept the grace of God in vain. Today and throughout the whole season of Lent, it could be easy to lean on our own successes or failures; it could be easy for us to fast from things we like or even love and then perhaps we will slip and forget, but this is successfully fasting or failing at a 40 day fast is not truly what Lent is about. Easter will come with surprising quickness and Lent provides an opportunity to use the space between now and then to know fully the grace of God. Lent allows us time to settle into new rhythms of life and devotion. It allows us time to become more fully present to the grace of God which fills our lives each and every day.
During this holy Lenten season, take note that you are dying, be aware that you are unknown, and make space for your sorrow, but forget not that, while life is full of these things, in the Christian life the paradox is true as well: be present to how you are alive in Christ, awaken to the fact that you are known by God, and do not forget to rejoice in God’s love. During this season, be reconciled to God and do not accept the grace of God in vain, but embrace the opportunity presented to us during this time to turn and return to the God who loves us with joy and excitement.
The featured artwork is the work of R. Grant Mansfield.