Like most babies, my little Isaac has chubby little baby rolls on his neck. They are, of course, adorable… until that horrifying moment when he stretches his head back and you realize that, stuck in that sweet baby fat, is some of the milk that had dribbled down his chin, mixed with some of the dirt from when we played outside with sister. Because of all that cute baby fat, the tenderness of the area, and his still stiff newborn body, this space tucked deep in his fat rolls is very difficult to clean, and because it remains mostly hidden, all that gunk eventually causes irritation on his soft skin. The area can’t heal until he lifts his chin, and it can be wiped clean.
It occurred to me that this is a helpful metaphor as we prepare this week for Ash Wednesday and the beginning of Lent. The penitential season of Lent always begins with this service focused on confession of sins – a confession that continues through the six weeks of Lent until Easter. The Psalm appointed for the day is always Psalm 51, with its well-known line, “Create in me a clean heart, O God, and renew a right spirit within me.”
I’ve long loved this image of seeking a clean heart, but seeing what happens in those hidden spaces of my sweet little boy’s baby fat really put a picture to it – for our hearts are just the same. We may not even notice what sins are stuck in those hidden places of our hearts, may not even notice that their presence there is causing irritation. We can’t see that the longer they remain, the more irritation they cause. Eventually it starts to affect us in external ways – in our relationships, our faith, our way of being in the world.
Until, one day, we finally lift our chins, look up to heaven, and ask God to “wash me through and through… cleanse me from my sin… Create in me a clean heart and renew a right spirit within me.” With our chins lifted toward God in prayer, and that dirt and sin that would irritate our tender hearts revealed, God is able, finally, to wipe us clean. After we are wiped clean, we are able, finally, to heal, to love, to serve God in newness of life.
What gunk is stuck in the tender places of your heart? What sins are irritating you and keeping you from the fullness of life that God envisions for you? What do you need wiped clean?
Join us for Ash Wednesday worship this Wednesday, 7pm at Bethlehem. We will have the imposition of ashes as well as holy communion, as we prepare for the six week journey of Lent.