Ash Wednesday (First Day of Lent): The Fast that God Chooses

By Sandra Hasenauer

Based on Isaiah 58:1-12

sunriseAnd so we come to Ash Wednesday, the first day of the season of Lent. Ash Wednesday is a day of repentance, a day that we turn to God and say, “I messed up. Please forgive me. I was hard-hearted. Please forgive me. I allowed fear to rule my heart, my words, and my actions. Please forgive me. I didn’t want to see the very thing you asked me to see. Please forgive me.” As much we see Lent as a time of personal repentance, however, repentance is also corporate repentance—the repentance of a whole community, that it did not live in God’s way.

We have turned our backs on one another. Please forgive us.

Repentance is not just about words of apology. God knows the difference. The word “repentance” comes from the Greek verb metanoeó, meaning to change one’s mind. Repentance means to think differently, to orient one’s worldview differently. In other words, repentance is to seek God’s forgiveness for our inability, or our unwillingness, to see things the way God wants us to see them.

“Why do we fast, but you do not see?” God asks. In other words, God asks, you may well say all the right things in worship, but why aren’t you actually seeing what I’m calling you to do in the world? “Look, you fast only to quarrel and to fight and to strike with a wicked fist. Such as fasting as you do today will not make your voice heard on high. Is such the fast that I choose…to bow down the head like a bulrush, and to lie in sackcloth and ashes?” (Isaiah 58:3-5, excerpted). God knows when our words don’t match our actions: when we say we’re sorry on the one hand, but on the other hand keep on doing the very things we’re saying we’re sorry about. This isn’t true repentance: we haven’t actually changed our thinking. We haven’t turned ourselves around. We’re not doing anything differently. We’re still not seeing the way God would have us see.

God doesn’t want just words or the particular worship rituals done by rote. Instead, God says, “Is not this the fast that I choose: to loose the bonds of injustice, to undo the thongs of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free, and to break every yoke? Is it not to share your bread with the hungry, and bring the homeless poor into your house; when you see the naked, to cover them, and not to hide yourself from your own kin?” (Isaiah 58:6-7, NRSV excerpted, emphasis mine).

Worship is action. Worship is courageous, counter-cultural action. Worship is action without fear, without hatred. Worship is about tearing down walls and joining hands. Worship is living in beloved community. Beloved community is all about repentance and renewing ourselves in a right relationship with one another and with God. Ash Wednesday is our call to search our hearts and offer up to God in repentance all that separates us from one another and all that separates us from God. Through this act of turning ourselves around, through changing the way we think to align it more closely with God’s vision, “then your light will break forth like the dawn, and your healing will spring up quickly; then your vindicator shall go before you, the glory of the Lord will be your rear guard” (Isaiah 58:8, NRSV).

Please forgive us, God. Change our minds and hearts. Help us to truly repent, and to learn to live in beloved community. We want to be your light and feel your healing spring up in our villages, towns, and cities. Come to us, repairer of the breach, and restore our streets in your peace. Amen.

headshot higherresRev. Sandra Hasenauer serves as associate executive director of American Baptist Women’s Ministries.

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