I love the challenge of Lent!   It first began about 10 years of age in Sunday School when (as some of you may remember) we were given little boxes with a slot in the top for our offerings for Lent.   No one explained to me that this was anything to do with a penitential season or giving up things – it just seemed to be a nice thing to do.   I didn’t use my pocket money – I used to make my parents give me extra money, which is against the whole principal, of course J  


The great thing about this was that the money was going to the church in New Guinea. We were given a wonderful picture of the Cathedral built by the natives in Dogura, and above the altar were three panels painted by an English Missionary back in the 1940’s. It was really exciting to see that my money was going to such a beautiful church.   Hardly in the spirit of Lent, you might say!


In my late teens I started attending an Anglo-Catholic parish. There was a new young priest there – and he inspired me and a group of young to be more disciplined about Lent.   I was very involved with sport, so the idea of discipline was something I could relate to.  


He taught us about fasting, about finding time for extra Mass, prayer, and reading. Ever since then the challenge of Lent has come each year – and each year I embrace it and rejoice in its challenge.   Perhaps in three weeks I won’t be rejoicing so much? But I certainly will at Easter, when chocolate always has a far better taste than it had before!


Why do I like the challenge?   It really comes from our Collect for today’s Mass: “Create and make in us new and contrite hearts”.   After many years of Lents, many years trying to be a good Christian, I still need this annual season of grace and discipline to make my heart evermore new, evermore contrite.   Because now, having passed from the enthusiasm of youth, I realise that our hearts do grow cold or stale, that love sometimes is in the back of our minds. So once again this season invites us to have renewed and contrite hearts. And the heart is really what Lent is all about. It is indeed at the heart of Lent – our individual hearts turning back to the Lord.


The blessing and Imposition of Ashes re-enforces this.   As we receive the ashes on our forehead we receive them in a sign of the cross, like no other sign of the cross.   We make the sign of the cross in a joyful way when we enter the church, or when we say our prayers, we make it in a more reflective way at the announcement of the Gospel, and we make it in a very reverent and devotional way at the time of receiving Communion.


But today it is made upon us in ashes, the sign of penitence and contrition.   And as this cross of ashes is made upon our foreheads, we are reminded surely of how fire destroys the past and reduces it to ashes. Especially here in San Diego, with our history of wildfires, and more recently in Australia with their bushfires.  The ashes alone are a symbol of the past being consumed and burnt up and destroyed.  The words said in the ashes ceremony are a stark reminder of not only the mortality of creation, but of our individual mortality and our urgent need of repentance: “Remember man, thou art dust, and to dust thou shalt return”. Hardly words of encouragement or joy – and yet necessary words at the beginning of this season.


These words challenge us to take seriously our Lord’s words: “Lay not up for yourselves treasures on earth”. But we do, don’t we? We lay up for ourselves treasures on earth, not necessarily money, but other treasures – treasures of the heart, treasures of prossesions, treasures of time – we lay them up.   Our Lord reminds us tonight: “Lay not up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust do corrupt and thieves break in and steal”.  Eventually they pass or become stale.


The challenge of the Prophet Joel is different to that sort of challenge: “Return to me with all your heart, with fasting, with weeping, and with mourning”. No sense of renewal here, but a conviction of sin.  


This was not a challenge for a renewed heart, but a strong call to repent. It was made at a time when the Jews had suffered much in terms of calamity. They had been afflicted, and the Prophet Joel compels them, encourages them to return to the Lord in trust that he will restore their fortune. Return to him rending their hearts, not their garments.  


The repentance that Joel speaks of is still a necessary ingredient to this season. Joel’s invitation and challenge applies to us too.   Let us make time to rediscover friendship with God.  


So we begin this acceptable time of Lent, as Saint Paul reminds us. Let us, with renewed hearts, rediscover the friendship of God.  In 2 Corinthians 5:20-6:10 Saint Paul not only encourages us to be reconciled to God – yet again – but reminds us that Christ has already achieved this reconciliation by his passion and death. Any reconciliation we aim for has already been won for us by what Christ achieved on that day which marks the climax of this Lenten Season.


Therefore we know because Christ has already won the victory that he can transform every situation, every corner of our life, every hidden recess.   Whereas Joel spoke of the day of terrible judgement, Saint Paul, referring to Isaiah, speaks of the day of salvation.   Joel’s future day of the Lord, a day of wrath, is transformed by the Cross and resurrection of Christ into a day of salvation.  


In this context the tradition of prayer, fasting, and almsgiving – the centre of our Lenten observance – that Jesus speaks of in the Gospel has a new spirit.   It is not something by which we can win salvation, or indeed win God’s favour.


It is something that the Church holds out to us whereby we can show our love for our heavenly Father, and for his Christ.   Something we can choose or not to do, something we can choose either large or small – always remembering that our salvation does not depend on any works of penitence. For our salvation has already been won for us. The great achievement of Lent will be that having journeyed with Christ to that point where he won our salvation, we will know it anew and afresh – and be reconfirmed in our faith, and our love of Jesus.


So in choosing the discipline of Lent, we choose to grow in grace. We choose to attack the influence of self-centeredness, so much the mark of our society and the world today. We choose to express our longing to be better at being Christians.  


Today we acknowledge that, though we are created from dust, we know that we are destined for something far better.