Ash Wednesday, Year B
17 February 2021
2 Corinthians 5:20b-6:10
Matthew 6:1-6, 16-21
The pastors of the Lower Mainland still meet up on Zoom on a regular basis, to support each other and to compare notes.
We have been in this pandemic for almost a year now and so many things we have taken for granted have been suspended or been adapted for these times. And now, as we were coming to the beginning of Lent and we were wondering how to observe Ash Wednesday.
I have always loved Ash Wednesday.
I think the sincerity of the spirit of Ash Wednesday has a lot to do with it, I have always experienced the imposition of ashes as deeply meaningful for ashes are so brutally honest. And then, one of my colleagues remarked that Ash Wednesday is one of the few times when we touch each other, and if we have learned anything during the past 11 months, we have learned how important human touch is for giving us a sense of togetherness, community, and love.
Maundy Thursday is the other day in our calendar when we touch each other. We wash each others’ feet or hands, and I know not everyone is all that comfortable with that, but who knows, we may emerge out of the pandemic with different feelings about it. The other touch of Maundy Thursday is the laying on of hands, very close to where we were marked with an ashen cross only six weeks before, with the pastor speaking these words: In obedience to the command of our Lord Jesus Christ, I forgive you all your sins.
For as long as I can remember – which is a long time, since I grew up in the church – I have always known that God forgives all my sins. And yet, having the pastor lay their hands on my head and pronouncing just that forgiveness is infinitely more powerful than when I try to tell this to myself. And the reason this is so, is because forgiveness comes to us as grace, from the outside. Luther spoke of it as extra nos. It’s nothing I can create for myself, it’s something I can only receive. And to have forgiveness embodied through another human being, a pastor, or sister or brother in Christ is simply more powerful and it is the way forgiveness works.
And so, on that Zoom call a few weeks ago, we were wondering how to do Ash Wednesday, and I was wondering whether we should even bother with ashes. I didn’t think everyone having a small container with ashes in their living room would be a good idea. I might stain your white carpet. Those are the logistical problems. The greater problem, however, is that you would have to trace the cross yourself, rather than having the pastor trace it for you.
From my e-mail and the bulletin you will know that after the sermon and the hymn we will move to the imposition of ashes. It’s a symbol that is precious to me because of its honesty about our human existence. But as with all symbols, they don’t exist for themselves they always point to something else.
Ashes are a deeply biblical symbol. The exiles in Babylon would take the Torah scrolls in an ark to the town square and cover it in ashes and they would also cover themselves in ashes and even roll in them as a sign of their mourning for the loss of the Promised Land.1
The words, “Remember that you are dust and to dust you shall return,” are spoken to us in our liturgy. They connect us to the second creation story where we learn that we were taken from the dust of the earth (Genesis 2:7). Later Abraham, our great ancestor, says of himself, “I am dust and ashes” (Genesis 18:27), and the prophet Isaiah says of human beings, they ‘… feed on ashes; a deluded mind has led them astray, and they cannot save themselves.’ (Isaiah 44:20)
Death is one of the last taboos in our society, and even the discussion of Medical Assistance in Dying is not so much an acknowledgment of death as it is the insistence that I want life on my own terms.
As we enter into the season of Lent we commit to life on God’s terms, not ours. That is why our invitation into this season includes these words:
I invite you to the discipline of Lent – self-examination and repentance, prayer and fasting, sacrificial giving and works of love.
None of them easy.
Lent and ashes are the admission that God is God and we are not, no matter how hard we try. Stanley Hauerwas said that Jesus is Lord and everything else is BS. You can get that on a t-shirt. I chose not to.
But that admission is life-giving, for it reorients our lives from desiring to be in control to giving God control.
Lent is about life but not without first acknowledging death.
Often we think of Lent in strictly personal terms, something like coming clean with God, recovering and renewing our faith. Certainly, we worship together and we understand ourselves to be God’s people, but often it’s a Jesus-and-I kind of thing.
But our readings, all of them, show us that faith is a social practise. Psalm 51 is David’s prayer after he had coerced Bathsheba and arranged for the death of her husband Uriah. His sin affected others, including the people he was to serve, not just himself.
Paul writes not to an individual but to a community.
In Isaiah God’s people are told that the fast God desires of them is to share their bread with the hungry, bring the homeless poor into their house; cover the naked, and not to hide oneself from one’s own kin.
And while Jesus encourages us not to be showy about our faith or anything we do, so that it is clear we do the right thing to do the right thing, and not to gain favour, almsgiving is not something we would only do for ourselves.
So, our Lenten journey begins with the admission that God is God and we are not. And in taking our cue from God’s benevolent openness to the world, we learn that faith is a social practise, for the restoration of our relationship with God involves the world God loves.
1 Hayim Goren Perelmuter in, “Ashes: A Biblical Sign for Jews and Christians,” in Liturgy vol 15, no 1, page 1