Ash Wednesday + March 1, 2017
Imposition of Ashes at 7:00 p.m. with hymns and organ music, sermon by the Rev’d William Eakins.
Worship at Home:
Click here for the Service Bulletin; scroll to read full sermon text.
Full Service Audio:
Voluntary Prelude in E minor, BWV 555/1 Johann Sebastian Bach (1685-1750)
Hymn 143 The glory of these forty days Erhalt uns, Herr
Hymn 674 Forgive our sins as we forgive Detroit
Voluntary Fugue in E minor, BWV 555/2 Johann Sebastian Bach
Full Sermon Text:
Ash Wednesday, we call it: a solemn day of repentance when Christians go to church to begin the holy season of Lent by having a cross of ashes marked on their foreheads. It is a messy, unattractive business – the gritty, burned residue of last year’s Palm Sunday branches smudged onto our brows, sometimes with bits of ash ending up on our noses. Why do we do it?
After all, doesn’t Jesus tell us in today’s Gospel not to “look dismal like the hypocrites who disfigure their faces that their fasting may be seen by others,” but instead to “wash your face that your fasting may not be seen by others but by your Father who sees in secret?” Jesus’ words remind us that the ashes we use today have no value in themselves, that wearing them will not make us holy, and that if we wear them to show the world that we are Christians, we are missing the point.
The point of the ashes is an in-your-face reminder of two facts that we would like to avoid, two truths that are as messy and dirty as the ashes.
First, the ashes confront us with the fact of our mortality, the fact that we are all going to die. Today, we are not just told that, we have it rubbed in our faces. The time is coming when our hearts will stop beating and our blood will go cold and the world will go on but we will not be there. Whether we are cremated or laid in the finest coffin, we will return to the dust whereof we are made. And from the vantage point of a priest who imposes the ashes, let me tell you that it is hard to do this, hard to say those words and trace the cross on the heads of children and the elderly and those whom I know are ill. I want to soften the stark reality with pastoral words, with words of comfort, but there is no way to soften the fact that we will all die. Life is short; life is precious. Don’t waste it.
Secondly, the ashes are a symbol of our sinfulness, the ineffectiveness of our ability to please God, the incompleteness and frailty of our attempts to be good. We have left undone the things we ought to have done and not done those things we ought to have done. In a few minutes we will confess all the brokenness and deadness in our lives – our hypocrisy, frustration, envy, prejudice, dishonesty and our pollution of the creation. There is no excuse for our sin, no way to explain it away, and no way to hide it from God. “There is no health in us.” The only way to wholeness is through our honesty and God’s grace.
Today’s ashes do mark us as mortal beings and as sinners, but they also mark us as God’s beloved children because they are not smeared on us randomly but traced deliberately in the sign of the cross. There is all the difference in the world between smearing dirt on somebody’s face and marking a cross there. A smudge of black ash and the words of death are signs of abasement and despair. But the same words joined with the cross connect us with our Baptism when another cross was traced on our foreheads with the words, “You are marked as Christ’s own forever.” And so forever after, we are not homeless wanderers on the face of the earth, but people named and claimed as God’s children. As God’s beloved children, we can be confident that when we turn to God and confess our sins, God will welcome and forgive us and that when we die, we have nothing to fear.
The imposition of ashes is not the end of the liturgy. There is one more thing to do. After being marked with the ashes, we will go to the altar once again to receive the bread and to share the wine of Holy Communion, kneeling in recognition of our mortality and sinfulness and reaching out our hands outstretched to receive God’s very self poured out for us in love.
“Remember that you are dust and to dust you shall return,” and remember that you are precious dust, dust into which God breathed life in the beginning of creation, dust so beloved that God came to be a part of us, embraced us, died for us, and despite our sin, returns again and again to love us.