I had one of those encounters yesterday that brought me up short. A homeless guy was hanging around the church after the early service and said he wanted to talk with me. There was something concrete I could help him with, but then he began telling me his story, telling me what burdened him. Many years ago, he had done something terrible to another human being and for all that time, his actions and what resulted from them preyed on him. He told me that he had asked God for forgiveness many times over the years, but that he couldn’t be sure he had been forgiven. We talked and prayed, and at the end of our meeting, I said the words of absolution while laying my hands on him:
Almighty God, have mercy on you, forgive you all your sins through our Lord Jesus Christ, strengthen you in all goodness, and by the power of the Holy Spirit, keep you in eternal life. Amen.
As I said them, I prayed that he might hear those words as words of consolation and forgiveness, words of assurance of God’s love for him. I hoped they could be words of comfort in the midst of a difficult life and at the end of a long road. As I said them, I thought of the Great Litany that we had recited earlier that morning. I thought too of Ash Wednesday with its litany of penitence. Ash Wednesday and Lent are times when we are encouraged to reflect on ourselves, our sins and shortcomings, repent of them, and seek God’s forgiveness. All of that can be hard work. It’s difficult to be honest with oneself, to admit one’s humanity, weaknesses, and faults. It’s difficult to repent of them—to say, yes, I’m sorry I’m that way, or that I’ve done those things. I’m sorry I continue to do them. It’s hard to lay oneself bare before oneself or before God.
But it’s also hard to ask for and accept God’s forgiveness. Sometimes that word of forgiveness is lost in the midst of our own pain and self-loathing. Sometimes the grace of forgiveness seems overwhelmed by our own suffering and the suffering we have inflicted on others. Sometimes, God’s forgiveness seems impossible. Sometimes we resist the amazing grace offered by God. Do the words of absolution, the offer of God’s forgiveness come as words of good news and grace in the midst of our lives? When we resist them, how can we open ourselves to the possibility that through God’s grace and love, we might experience new life in Christ?
The message of Ash Wednesday and Lent can be hard indeed, but harder still for us to hear and receive may be the message of God’s forgiveness. Lent should also be a time when our goal should be to experience that message fully. It should be a time when we open ourselves to the joy of God’s grace.