(Joel 2:12-18; II Corinthians 5:20-6:2; Matthew 6:1-6.16-18)
Hester Prynne is the heroine of the American classic, The Scarlet Letter. She lives in colonial New England. After marrying an older man who leaves her for long periods, she allows herself to be seduced. When she gives birth to a baby, the town condemns her. Her penalty is that she is to wear a red letter A for adulteress on her clothing at all times. Stoically bearing the mark of disgrace, she goes about town with her daughter eking out a living by assisting others. As years pass, the townspeople forget about Hester’s crime. They only admire the care that she bestows on everyone and come to think of the A on her clothing as meaning angel.
In a few moments we will have ashes put on our foreheads. Like Hester Prynne’s scarlet letter the ashes are a sign that we have sinned. We have loved ourselves too much and have served God and neighbor too little. Along with wearing ashes today, we should redouble our efforts to fast, pray, help others, and provide for the poor this Lent season. Then when we ask God’s forgiveness, He will erase our sins from the ledger like the people lose memory of what Hester’s A originally meant. Again like Hester, people will recognize us for our virtues, not for our faults.
So let us joyfully take up the disciplines of Lent knowing that they will lead to our renewal. A generation ago some preachers recommended that people should focus on only positive practices during Lent. That advice, though sincerely made, seems to lack full understanding of how severely sin has affected humans. We should, as well, discipline the desire for constant gratification of our appetites. Efforts on both fronts will draw us closer to God.