Ash Wednesday 2023

Jonah 3:1-4:11

 Grandma Josie (Again)

 Ash Wednesday is the most solemn day in the liturgical year when we confess that we have placed our fear, love, and trust in someone or something other than God. Because the forty days of Lenten fast begin today, we typically abstain from one or more of our favorite little gods throughout this season. Please note that the key to what you give up isn’t something easy like chocolate. The Sundays of Lent are, like all Sundays, little Easters and hence are feast days. You may break the fast on Sundays, but it makes it that much harder to begin the fast again on Monday… so it’s better to keep the fast for forty days like Jesus.

Grandma Josie, my Dad’s mom, was the daughter of a father born in Sicily and a mother born in New Orleans to immigrants from Ustica, an island of fishermen, located not far from Palermo, Sicily. The oldest of fourteen children, Grandma Josie ran off with Grandpa Sam and got excommunicated from the Roman church for marrying outside the faith. Neither family was thrilled. Grandpa was German, Cherokee, and Baptist. After Grandpa Sam committed suicide, she was reconciled with the Roman church and family.

Grandma went to mass every week. She had Dad’s younger brother, Uncle Norman, and Dad’s baby sister, Aunt Mary Frances, baptized in the Roman church. But Dad went with the Zumwalts to the Baptist church. His marrying a German Lutheran from Philadelphia guaranteed we would be religiously weird.

I remember the annual question asked at the beginning of Lent: “Grandma, what are you giving up this year?” Her answer was always the same: “Turnips.” Someone would say, “But, Grandma, you don’t like turnips.” And she would answer: “Well, that’s what I am giving up.” As you can guess, she was stubborn.

I prefer to think of the prophet in today’s reading as St. Jonah, who is probably my patron saint. Like him, I resisted God’s call before, during seminary, and even in the early years after ordination. In times of parish conflict through the years, I would fantasize about becoming Armand the Beach Bum. The closest I ever got to that was the three years we rented at Kure Beach when we moved here at the end of June 2004. But I work far too much to ever be a beach bum, and I know I would get so bored after a few days off.

Grandma Josie was a piece of work. She never liked my father or me very much simply because we were both named Sam, a reminder of her first marriage and its tragic ending. She loved babies. She cooked the pasta every day for Papa Joe, our beloved, native Sicilian step-grandfather. She despised alcohol, and gave Papa Joe hell if he had too much at a party. And, again, Grandma Josie hated turnips. We should, at least, give her an A for honesty, since she didn’t pretend she was going to give up anything for Lent.

But Lent is about going into the wilderness to fast with our Lord Jesus Christ in order that we learn from Him to fear, love, and trust our Father in heaven. So, what would be hardest for you to give up? Would it be social media? Alcohol? Television? Hours of watching sports? The lottery? Or some great vice like porn or adultery? Avoiding your family? Working more hours than needed? Gossip? Video games?

When you give something up for Lent, it’s about turning and returning to the Lord and His good and gracious will for your life. If it’s easy or just an aggravation, that’s not at all the meaning of the fast.

Thank you, dear Father, for Grandma Josie and all who teach us by example what it does and does not mean to repent daily. In Jesus’ name. Amen.

Put one penny, nickel, or dime in a bowl or box today to feed the poor (Mother Hubbard’s Cupboard).

Pastor Samuel D. Zumwalt, STS
St Matthew's Evangelical Lutheran Church
Wilmington, NC

English Standard Version (ESV)
The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Text Edition: 2016. Copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers.