A Homily for Ash Wednesday
Texts: Joel 2:1-2, 12-17, Psalm 51, St. Matthew 6:1-6, 16-21
Grace to you and peace from God our Father and Christ Jesus our Lord, who calls us to repentance. Amen.
Rarely is the tension of our faith on such stark display as it is today. We sit here, brows smeared with ash, and ponder the words of Christ:
Beware of practicing your piety before others in order to be seen by them….whenever you fast, do not look dismal, like the hypocrites, for they disfigure their faces so as to show others that they are fasting. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward. But when you fast, put oil on your head and wash your face, so that your fasting may be seen not by others….
On the face of it, there’s a sharp contrast between our Lord’s teaching and our actions.
Similar tension exists elsewhere in the Church year, of course, but today the paradox is immediate and quite literally in your face. These ashes stand out. They’re noticeable. They call attention to themselves – seemingly in the very way we’ve just been advised to avoid.
Ash Wednesday might be the one day out of the year that you can, with great ease, tell who has been to church. I never fail to notice the vaguely-cruciform smudges as I pass my fellow penitents on the street, and when I worship late in the day – as today – I always feel compelled to let them know that I, too, will soon bear the mark of the ashen cross and reminder of my mortality. It’s just that I haven’t gotten around to it yet, but soon and very soon. Because I, like them, am a member of the club.
This is exactly what Jesus is telling us not to do. This attitude is precisely what Christ is warning against. And it’s also definitively NOT why we wear ashes.
Nearly a year ago, we joined together on Palm Sunday and waved bright green palms,
celebrating our Lord’s triumphal entry into Jerusalem and marking our turn from Lent into Holy Week. Those same palms were left to dry and shrivel. Yesterday, they were rigid and inflexible. You could snap them in your hand, sending a cloud of dust into the air. And when, last night, we lit them aflame, they were consumed in under a minute. What had been lively and green a year ago, filling up buckets, has been reduced to ash that can fit into a Styrofoam cup for storage overnight or into small tray on the altar.
We wear these ashes because we are like them. As we are now, they once were – healthy, vibrant, alive. As they are now – dead, reduced to ash and dust – we too will be.
They remind us that we will one day wither away.
Rather than a marker of some special status or a badge identifying us a members in an elite club, these ashes are a sign to you and everyone who sees you that you and everyone who sees of your common nature: you are in fact sinners destined for the grave.
It’s not an easy message to hear nor is it an easy message to speak. It feels like a slap in the face. There’s a reason we talk about the “imposition” of ashes. These ashes, and the message they carry, are pressed upon us, inflicted upon us.
The message of human sinfulness, suffering, and mortality is always being imposed upon us. We see it when we turn on the news to learn that the nineteenth school shooting in only six weeks is unfolding on live television. We feel it when we realize just how much pain and anguish we’ve caused a loved one. There is no denying the reality of sin and its consequence in the world. In being reminded of our sinfulness and mortality, the ashen cross imposed upon your brow is a reminder that you can’t do this by yourself.
It doesn’t matter if you are wealthy and powerful. You are dust, and to dust you will return.
It doesn’t matter if you are poor of spirit and meek of heart. You are dust, and to dust you will return.
It doesn’t matter if you give a full tithe, if you fast regularly, if you tear your clothes in anguish, if you make it through Lent without a scrap of meat or drop of coffee, if you never miss a Sunday morning. You are dust, and to dust you will return.
What hope is there for us, ash and dust that we are?
Our hope is in God.
Like the Psalmist, we join our cries in this ancient hymn:
Have mercy on me, O God, according to your steadfast love; according to your abundant mercy blot out my transgressions.
We cry out, trusting that God’s love is, in fact, steadfast and that divine mercy truly is abundant. And we look to the cross as a sign of hope.
These ashes that weighs so heavily upon our heads and our hearts are traced in the shape of the cross, the instrument of torture on which our Lord was put to death. But because Christ rose again, we know that the grave does not win out. The cross, such an ugly and violent thing when used by the Romans, is an object of beauty when put into divine hands. The cross of Christ is a reminder that the sin and death may have their way with us for a time, that we will return to the earth as dust, but that Christ has conquered these things.
As we move towards the Cross, we do so with the reminder of our sin and mortality imposed upon us. But we do so also with the sign of Christ’s victory over Death on our brow.
We trace the sign of the cross in holy oil at Baptism – and again at confirmations and on the sick when we ask for God’s healing, as a reminder of Baptism. These ashes, too, are traced in in the sign of the cross as a reminder of your Baptism – that in holy waters, you joined Christ in the grave – BUT! that you will also join our Lord in the Resurrection.
Here, at the outset of our Lenten pilgrimage towards Jerusalem, we implore God:
Wash me thoroughly from my iniquity, and cleanse me from my sin.
When we finally arrive at the glorious Paschal Feast, we will remember our Baptism and renew our baptismal promises, living in to the joy of the Resurrection. These ashen crosses, then, are reminders of our sinfulness and mortality but also symbols of our hope in God’s divine mercy.
For now, we rend our hearts and put aside certain comforts, fasting for forty days as the Spirit leads us into the wilderness. We set out with broken and contrite hearts, ashes on our heads. We set out into the wilderness and times of trial. We set out towards Jerusalem, knowing that our journey will take us to the cross and the grave.
But we do so with another destination in mind, trusting in God’s steadfast love. We enter Lent knowing that the repentant sacrifice of a broken spirit is all God requires. And trusting that the Lord will hear our cries, will see what we do in the secret places of our hearts, forgive our sin and mend our brokenness. We depart into the Lenten wilderness, knowing that we will pass by the cross and the tomb, but we will arrive at a wondrous Easter morning, knowing that the tomb is empty.