In The Episcopal Church, every year the same readings are appointed to be read at the services on Ash Wednesday, marking the beginning of Lent. For years, I have visited these same readings over and over: Joel, 2 Corinthians, and Matthew. They are, in many respects, dense texts, offering a variety of possibilities to the would-be preacher. Each year, as I stand on the precipice of Ash Wednesday, I wonder how those texts will speak to me yet again — and, a little part of me is perhaps a bit scared that this might be the year that they don’t speak to me at all. Thankfully, that year was not this year.
The text that speaks to me today comes at the very end of the readings, the last few words for Ash Wednesday from Matthew’s Gospel: “Where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.” There your heart will be also. What does Jesus mean when he speaks of the heart?
In the biblical context, and, indeed, in religion and spirituality generally, the heart is usually understood to refer to the center of our being, our most authentic self, the point of our being where we find ourselves in God and God in ourselves. While I honor that ancient notion, I have also found myself understanding the term “heart” somewhat differently.
For me, the heart has become not the center of who we are, but rather the center of our attention or consciousness. And as our center of attention or consciousness, the heart can dwell either in the spacious grace of God’s loving energy or in the restricted and constricted space defined by our fears, grievances, worries, and preoccupations. In other words, our heart can either be centered in the light or in the shadows. The choice is really ours to make, and what Jesus suggests to us in this passage from Matthew is that we will make that choice based on what we treasure.
The season of Lent is, in many respects, designed to bring us face to face with the truth about the choices we generally make as we go through our lives day by day. How often do we choose to treasure our fears and worries, grievances and preoccupations, and allow those energies to dominate our heart, to dominate our attention and consciousness?
It is not that God is disconnected from our fears and worries, but rather that when our heart dwells among them, we loose track of God’s connection to our lives. The noise of all that preoccupies us drowns out the still, small voice of God that whispers within our depths. And what does that voice whisper within us? It whispers the one truth about us that is more important than anything else: that we are Beloved. That we have always been the Beloved of God, and that we always will be.
This truth of our beloved-ness is what defines that space of divine grace and love within each of us, and when our hearts our centered in this Beloved space, then we experience God’s love as a movement of forgiveness, generosity, and compassion — we experience the freedom of knowing that in God’s eyes, we are good enough. We experience the freedom of knowing that we do not have to strive to earn God’s love — rather, we simply need to allow ourselves to experience that love, to relax into God’s spacious grace.
If you attend an Ash Wednesday liturgy, you would be forgive for perhaps being left with the impression that God’s love is perhaps not as freely given as I have suggested. I have to admit that I struggle a bit with that liturgy on an annual basis, since it focuses very much on sin and “wretchedness”, on our failure to choose the light over the shadows, on the many ways that we treasure the small world of our fears over the spacious world of God’s love. But I have come to see the Ash Wednesday liturgy’s preoccupation with the shadow part of ourselves as a kind of therapeutic tool that is meant to push us to get in touch with what, exactly, we treasure, and where our hearts are hanging out. This liturgy serves as a kind of wake-up call that brings us face to face with our own mortality, challenging us to see how much energy we put into the things that moth and rust will consume, rather than in our relationship with the God who names us as Beloved.
With that therapeutic value, comes the risk that this liturgy will send us away feeling guilty and defeated. But I am quite sure that is not the invitation that God makes to us in Lent. God, I think, wants us to leave this liturgy awakened to the reality of how often we allow ourselves to miss the truth of our Belovedness, and prepared to meet the challenge of really embracing that truth and all that it means for us.
For me, this year, that invitation takes the form of a question: What do I treasure? And what does that say about where my heart is?
What do you treasure? Where is your heart?
The readings appointed for Ash Wednesday are Joel 2:1-2, 12-17; 2 Corinthians 5:20b-6:10; and Matthew 6:1-6, 16-21.