This sermon was preached on Ash Wednesday, 14 February 2018, at St. Mark’s Church. I did not see the news until after the evening liturgy, but it was the same day as the shooting at Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida.
Collect: Almighty and everlasting God, who hatest nothing that thou hast made and dost forgive the sins of all those who are penitent: Create and make in us new and contrite hearts, that we, worthily lamenting our sins and acknowledging our wretchedness, may obtain of thee, the God of all mercy, perfect remission and forgiveness; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who liveth and reigneth with thee and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.
In the Name of God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, Amen:
In one of the parishes I served previously, there was a parishioner who loved Ash Wednesday, but who always refused to receive the imposition of ashes. She delighted in pointing out the irony in the way we observe the day: Jesus says in the Gospel appointed for today, “Do not make an outward show of your piety,” while here we are today, imposing ashes on our foreheads as an outward sign of our piety.
She’s not making it up, the irony really is there. But here we are anyway, about to receive the imposition of ash. Is the church really just that hypocritical? Or is there something more going on in what we do today?
The short answer is, No, I don’t think we’re being hypocritical, or at least not necessarily; and, Yes, I think there is something more going on in what we do with the ash today, and what we do with the rest of our prayers, our penitence, and our Lenten fasting.
So what’s the long answer? We live in a world where it’s more obvious than ever that doing good is no guarantee of success or security, and that unscrupulousness and downright wickedness bets ahead, time after time. Ash is a fitting symbol for such a world as this: a world where peace and goodness are discarded in favor of personal ambition and selfish grasping at things — individual ego or social power or both — can only lead to its own destruction both morally and literally. Ash is a sign of recognition, even a sign of protest, that such a world is not God’s intention, that more is possible, bore is necessary, if we are all not to end in fire and ruin. Ash is a sign of things to come, in such a world as this.
But the ash on our foreheads today is also a sign of hope. I will mark the ash on your forehead in the sign of the cross. The sign of the cross indicates death, no mistaking that. But more specifically it indicates Jesus’ death, and carries with it the symbolism of his resurrection from death. Jesus met his death on the cross, and with him must go all this world with all its selfishness and greed. But with him the world also rises from death into a new life free of death, free of every cloying, corrupting, destroying thing. The cross is a sign of hope, that what we see in the life of Jesus is being wrought in all creation by the Holy Spirit making all things new.
The ash is a sign of protest and the cross a sign of hope for the whole world. But it’s also inescapably personal. It’s on your own forehead after all. It’s a reminder that though we rail against the corruption and disorder of this world, we are implicated too: by our own choices, in our own way, small or great, we too have some part in the ruination of the world and of our souls. Every choice for self above others, every smug glance, every snide comment, every lost temper, contributes to the impoverishment of humanity and of myself at least as much as bad policy, unjust laws, or rapacious economies. I will go to destruction along with the world of which I am a part, I am not separate, I am not uninvolved, I am not innocent; so the ash reminds us.
And at the same time, Ash in the sign of the cross on your forehead recalls the moment when the same pattern was traced in the same place, in holy oil at your baptism. Another inescapably personal moment: when the forgiveness for which Jesus prays from the cross washes over you and becomes yours; when his death becomes yours, and his resurrection too. Ash in the sign of the cross a reminder and harbinger of death; and yet full of confident hope, that death does not have the last word, and that I, along with all things, am being made new.
So the imposition of Ash on Ash Wednesday is more than simply an outward display of piety; or it ought to be, if it’s to mean for us all that it can, and if we’re to escape the charge that Jesus levels against the Pharisees of his own day. It’s a sign of protest against this world and all its wickedness, a prophetic act by which we declare it can only end in fire and ruin. It’s also a penitential act, by which we’re reminded that we are not innocent either, and that we have some part in the ruination we see. But it’s also a hopeful act, for our world and for ourselves, that just as Christ himself died and rose again, so is the promise of God for each one of us: though the world around us turn to ash, yet new life “springeth green” out of the tomb.
It may be ironic that Our Lord counsels us against public displays of piety. And yet in our world today, public displays of piety are a powerful symbol both to ourselves and to the world, that there is a larger picture to which all of us are accountable, and to which we hold ourselves accountable; a larger narrative beyond this election cycle and beyond even this modern and postmodern era of the world. By our piety — by our prayers, our penitence, our fasting, our ashes — in short by our faithful and affectionate religion we participate in that larger narrative, gain some glimpse even now of its final promise, and are strengthened to do our part to live as if that promise were already here in full.
So this Ash Wednesday, let’s be conscious that these ashes are a way for God to say something to us, as well as a way for us to say something of God to the world. Wear your ashes boldly, let them be a sign, of penitence and the promise of new life.
In the Name of God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit: Amen.