sermon for Ash Wednesday (from Matthew 6 & Joel 2)
I like Ash Wednesday. Maybe like you, I find it moving, though—also perhaps like you—I don’t really understand it.
For starters there’s even the simple question of whether or not you’re supposed to keep wearing the ashes after worship. I mean, Jesus warns about practicing our piety before others on the street corners. That would seem to say that if you’re headed to the store after worship or back to work, then maybe you shouldn’t be a show-off with your ashy forehead, acting dismal and disfigured and unwashed. But on the other hand, clearly we must be putting it on, wearing that black stain for a definite reason, right? So if we’re immediately wiping it off, then why bother being marked in the first place?
That’s even more difficult to answer when we realize the external isn’t what we’re focusing on, but the internal. The prophet Joel said that it isn’t our clothing we tear to lament, but rend our hearts. Not so much our appearance but our attitude, “with weeping and with mourning” he says.
That goes with the confession of sins, which raises more conflicting questions, since this strong repentance can seem like we’re dwelling on our faults. It can seem depressing, or maybe even masochistic. In our society, you don’t admit any weakness or shortcoming. We’re trained to put on a strong face and act as if everything is okay and be tough enough to pull ourselves up as individuals. When my sister was doing job interviews, there was always a question “what’s your biggest fault?” She joked about responding with back-handed self-congratulatory compliments, “I’m a perfectionist” or “I spend too much time at work.”
And yet, counter-culturally, we gather here confessing our actual sins, owning up to what we’ve done wrong, acknowledging brokenness. So is this just about being pessimists or losers? Are we trying to feel ashamed, to rub in a sense of unworthiness or guilt?
Probably it is better labeled as sincerity that peels back our masks and false pretensions, that won’t permit our claims to self-righteousness, to labeling ourselves as alright and calling others the problem. It may be a healthier way of seeing the world and interacting with others not to claim a place of privilege as so wholly self-sufficient, but to recognize our need, that we require assistance from others. Then we’ll see how it is met as a gift, as the sharing of community, whether in church or as a creature on earth.
And if we’re following Jesus’ instructions and guidance, to live lives of concern for others, to be generous and caring, then we need that re-orientation, that motivation. We’d have to acknowledge we could always do better at it, and that it is indeed worth trying.
That’s a positive explanation, a good way of talking about what we do in confession. Even more so, the word of forgiveness, of an entirely fresh start where you are not liable for the wrongs you’ve committed, is just about the most stunning word you can receive. More miraculous is that it comes not because you’ve earned it through restitution or retribution but only because God declares it, speaks that word to you.
Yet that positive, gracious side again doesn’t quite seem to fit with your smudge of ashes. If confession of sins is not to be depressing or dismal or disappointed, can we say something similar about that black cross that will be a stain on your forehead? Can it possibly be good news? As Tim and I are besmirching you, young and old alike, we’ll proclaim that reminder, “You are dust and to dust you shall return.” That’s the dark heart of my struggles with this day. It feels mostly morbid, like an insistence on or fascination with death. I love you so much that it’s heart-wrenching to say to the youngest of you, and is miserably sad in other, older instances.
But we should admit remarkable miracle even in those words. It isn’t only about finitude, the too-sudden endings of death. Certainly it has nothing to do with you being worthless; after all, you are God’s good creation. And that God formed you from the dust is worth considering, in part since our food is from the soil and cultivated land is what gives us culture. We are indeed humans formed from the humus, we are earthlings, part of this vast system of relationships God established.
Still more, that you are dust is so much more than an earthling. The elements of your body were formed in the fusion of stars that have exploded, gone supernova, over the 13.8 billion years of this universe. You are stardust, and you yourself are the fruition that would not be possible without that vast history. That’s a stunning reminder.
The other side of it may feel somewhat less romantic, that you also return to dust. And yet it is a truth that our death sustains future life. Our excrement is tomorrow’s fertility. Our waste is recycled and becomes a recreation of God in fresh beginnings. As dead dinosaurs facilitate your lifestyle with fossil fuels, you’ll also find your way into God-knows-what kind of future. Perhaps that’s symbolized as last year’s Palm Sunday celebration returns today, the ashes of our past becoming a blessing for this moment.
But that also points toward something more. This isn’t only about death being an opportunity for other life or about the conservation of matter or ongoing usefulness of what had seemed exhausted and dead. As the Catholic mystic Thomas Merton said, “It might be good stoicism to receive a mere reminder of our condemnation to die, but it is not Christianity.”* See, this day and the ashes also tie in with Jesus. Maybe that should be obvious, since we’re gathered in church. Yet those marks on your forehead make us need to ponder what we believe and why.
The odd puzzle in this part, the ongoing question it seems to raise is the triangle of our relationships with death and with Jesus. You return to the earth, but your future is not just in having your atoms recycled. In faith, we trust that your death is not the end, that our wrongs or sins or spiritless separation of death do not have the final word. Jesus is the final Word. We’re people who confess in the creed that we believe in “the resurrection of the body and the life everlasting.” But then why bother to be reminded today about death? Why dwell on that, if that’s not where our hope lies or our remains remain?
In our funeral services, the graveside committal says, “In sure and certain hope of the resurrection to eternal life through our Lord Jesus Christ, we commend to almighty God our sister and we commit her body to the ground, earth to earth, ashes to ashes, dust to dust.” Then right after that we pray to God, “Strengthen us in our weakness, calm our troubled spirits, and dispel our doubts and fears. In Christ’s rising from the dead, you conquered death and opened the gates to everlasting life.”
Just as when in a cemetery we are saying those temporary but still-too-long farewells to loved ones, encounters with death and mortality remain hard and sad. It’s still a problem. It’s not right and not okay, even if it’s not really final. We always need hope renewed and calm for our troubled spirits, not just at a graveside or deathbed, but even in the midst of a bleak, cold winter night.
So the cross on your head: is that a visible reminder that you’ve been claimed by Christ? That God is with you not just for afterlife, but even now in your dirtiness and difficult decisions? Is it the mark of death that can only be cleaned and washed away in the waters of baptism, where you were marked with an invisible cross for eternal life? Is that black smudge in the shape of Jesus’ cross not marking your death so much as that in his death he defeated death, that in him death dies?
What’s this all about, and why is it important for you, not only now but in these weeks until Easter, and long beyond?
Hymn: Ashes and New Life
* In Lent Sourcebook I, pg18