The liturgy had me at hello this year…The service for Ash Wednesday is certainly a beautiful one, but as I was skimming through the bulletin preparing for today, I didn’t expect I would just get caught by the first sentence of the first collect: “Almighty and everlasting God, you hate nothing that you have made”
You hate nothing that you have made. That’s the opening line for us to enter this time of Lent. And you know, I thought it was in the same time a little bit disturbing and yet so touching and profound. It moved me in a very different way that when I hear that “God loves us”.
God loves us. Isn’t that the truth, and we know that, right? We hear that often enough. Not only at church. On TV, on the radio, we read it on bumper stickers. Maybe we’ve gotten used to it. We don’t really think about what it means anymore.
But God does not hate us. Isn’t that something? It gave me a chill trough my spine.
This line moved me first of all, because it reminds us that although we may keep on rejecting and hating one another, and find good reasons for that, there is nothing like that in God. In a world where we are so often hated for what we look like, how we sound or who we are, God does not discriminate. There is nothing wrong with us in God’s sight. As God created us, so we are, and God upholds us in our being.
And that’s already something.
But there is something that is even more worthy to be noticed: It is that as God does that, as God accepts us as we are, God also accepts who we’ve become and who we’ve let ourselves become. God accepts not only who we are, but also what we did. God does not reject us based on our appearance and God does not reject us based on our deeds. And we mean both when we say that God does not hate us.
God does not hate us. Reading this line reminded me of something I haven’t thought about for a long time. It took me back when I was studying literature in college. There is a very famous classical French play – called “Le Cid” – and it tells the story of a young woman whose lover, to avenge the honor of his father, kills her own father in a duel. And so it’s pretty dramatic, right? But after he kills her father, the young woman has these famous words for her lover:
“See, I hate you not”
I hate you not. It became a famous quotation. I hate you not, meaning I still love you, but even a little more than that. A little stronger than that. It means, even if you do the worst thing to me, it’s not only that I will still love you – that there will be some lingering feelings inside of me – but even if you do the worst thing to me, there is no way I can bring myself to have something against you, there is no room for resentment, no desire for destruction inside my heart.
And I think it’s a little bit of the same idea in our Collect today, when we say that God hates nothing God has made. It does not acknowledge mainly that God has some warm, fuzzy feelings for us we should rejoice about. It acknowledges that although we may have done the worst to God, or although we may have done the worst in God’s sight – and we can think about it as killing God’s Son when Jesus died on the cross, but we can also think about it in terms of wars, genocides, and destruction of the ecosystems – in spite of all this evil, there is no room for resentment in God’s heart, no desire for destruction.
God cannot bring God to have something against us.
God does not hate us: It takes into account the reality of sin, evil and pain and yet, almighty and everlasting is God, and so is God’s love: Almighty and everlasting. It cannot be destroyed.
And so this Collect gave me a chill in the spine because I am afraid that often when people tell us they love us, or maybe appreciate us, or give us a compliment, we wonder if they really know us. We wonder if their love or affection, although genuine, is something that has really taken into account all the aspects of who we are or what we have done or what we could do. We wonder if it isn’t a love that is – without a fault of their own – a little bit superficial.
Maybe they like only what they see, the image they have of us, not our depths.
And people at Jesus’s time were already worried about that, weren’t they? Like most of us, they were trying to look good so they could be, if not loved, be admired or respected, or at least be accepted. They put on all those religious acts maybe because they were worried that there was something so ugly or just so plain ordinary inside of them, that they would be mocked, criticized or rejected if people were to find out. And maybe so.
But God, God does not hate us.
God does not hate us so maybe it’s okay to put down the mask. At any rate, no matter how much we may want to hide, God sees us in secret. God sees us in secret. God sees us in secret. Jesus repeats that six times. And it’s not so much that God observes and keeps tabs on what we do in secret, rather it is that God knows the secrets of our hearts: hurts, anxieties, troubles, shame, regrets and longings– all these things that would make us unlovable, if they knew.
But if God does not hate us – and that’s we are reminded of during Lent – God invites us in a relationship with God. Jesus reminds us in the Gospel today that God asks us to use our religion, our spiritual practices not as a make over, a polish to make us look a little nicer, a little more attractive, a little more acceptable, God asks us to use our spiritual practices, prayer, fasting (the things we “give up”), alms giving (the things we “give away”), as a way to crack open before God and to give our hearts to God – to give not only the bright and shiny, but all the things we work hard on hiding because we feel bad, guilty and ashamed.
Because we should not feel first bad, guilty and ashamed. We should first feel loved, accepted and upheld in our being. Because if God does not hate us, how could we despise ourselves?
If God does not hate us, if God accepts us anyway, then it means that we cannot, that we aren’t authorized to sit around hiding, hating ourselves or the rest of humankind, and we need to move forward and become more loving.
I think that what the Gospel teaches us today is this ridiculously simple thing that to love and be loved, we don’t need to look good, to be good or to do good, the only thing we need to do is to open our hearts. And it is true with God, and it is true in any relationships, if we want to love for real.
You know, our best friends aren’t those who honor us with their friendship because they have it all together, because they stay young and healthy and have those wonderful kids or grand kids and great jobs or retirement places. Our best friends are those we can call at the end of the week and tell them about all the ways we messed up and embarrassed ourselves, and still have a good laugh about it, and feel loved the same and even a little more because we told them.
And we can all be this kind of friends and make others feel loved too.
I think God is this kind of friend.
In God, we discover that we can be loved not because we’re messed up or damaged, but because as we acknowledge the depths of our hearts, we allow ourselves to be known and to be seen. As we do so, we free ourselves to be loved and we will free others to let themselves be known and seen too.
This is the key to give and to receive love and this is called vulnerability. This was called humility in the ancient times. And this is the sign we are going to receive today, the sign of the ashes (humility means humus, dirt). Humility, it does not mean to humiliate oneself, it just means to be simple, to be real, to not take ourselves too seriously, and to be sincere about our shortcomings without being a drama queen, and doing so allowing ourselves to be known and to be seen because if God hates us not, neither should we.
And so this is the opening line, and this is our invitation for Lent. If God hates us not, then we cannot sit around hating ourselves or hating humankind, we have to move forward, and as we open our hearts, do the hard work of acceptance, reconciliation and reparation.
Today is Ash Wednesday and we’re just getting started, but let’s start with the beginning. Let’s move forward and receive the ashes.