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Ashes and Dust

February 5th, 2008 by Jason · 1 Comment

In preparing for Ash Wednesday, I’ve been going over the lectionary readings, reading Isaac’s non-sermoned sermon from last year, and browsing the resources over at textweek. Following is a mini-sermon I may give tomorrow if my voice holds up.

Ash Wednesday is an uncomfortable day and a day full of paradoxes. The Joel passage speaks of one of the major paradoxes: despair and hope, a day of darkness and gloom and a day of returning and forgiveness. If it an uncomfortable day of returning to God and leaving behind our habits of fear, our habits of protecting ourselves with treasures of possessions, houses, promotions, and degrees, our habits of ignoring the pull and tug of God—in short a day that reminds us of our habits of sin. We are creatures of habit, something the church has long recognized, and so today we participate in the church’s antidote: the rhythm of a time to confess and return, a time set apart for the shedding of our habits of vice and the inculcation of new habits of virtue.

In fact, when Ash Wednesday came about around a thousand years ago as part of the church calendar it centered on the theme of repentance and preparation. Since the days of the early church Lent was a time that mirrored Jesus’ 40 days in the wilderness and those wishing to become part of the church would prepare to be baptized on Easter by study, fasting, and introspection. Eventually those who had already been baptized joined in the season as a time of pennance and re-commitment to their baptismal vows. Ash Wednesday marked the beginning of the Lent and the imposition of ashes was a visible sign of repentance that goes back thousands of years (think of Jesus warning that Chorazin and Bethsaida should have repented in “sackcloth and ashes”). Out of this theme comes one of the phrases that is said with the imposition of ashes: “turn from sin, and believe the good news.”

The ashes also naturally came to be associated with the beginnings of sin and our mortality as people of earth and dust. In the midst of pronouncing the toil and groaning that will be part and parcel of humanity’s experience, the writer of Genesis reminds us that we are people of dust, people of earth whose beginning and ends are bound up with the brokenness of the world. With this recognition comes the other phrase said when applying the ashes, from Gen. 3:19: “remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.”

Both of these phrases are somber reminders of aspects of ourselves we would sooner forget. Our culture hastens to help us forget our mortality by sequestering the sick away in sterilized hospitals and entertaining us to death in the mad rush to help us avoid thinking on the bigger questions of life. In fact, our denial of our mortality and our need to repent are interlinked. John Donne, in a hymn that wanders through the various ways in which sin infects his life concludes his prayer with these words:

I have a sinn of fear, that when I have spunn
My last thred, I shall perish on the shore;
Sweare by thy selfe that at my Death thy Sunn
Shall shine as it shines nowe, and heretofore;
And having done that, thou hast done,
I have noe more.

Behind our mortality often lies actions that mask our fear of dying, which as Donne recognizes, is at its root our fear to cast ourselves upon the mercy of God. But in recognizing our fear and propensity to abandon God for the “securities” of sin by being marked with ashes we make room for the good news that is present even in Ash Wednesday. That good news is proclaimed by Paul in the 2 Cor. passage: today, even this day where we are so tangibly reminded of our inability to save ourselves, is the day of salvation. “Now is the day of salvation,” proclaims Paul. This is the good news we are entreated to believe: that even in death, in sin, in the darkness and trembling the salvation of God is at hand. God is indeed merciful and gracious—overflowingly so—and by confessing our reliance on other gods we make room for God to fill and reshape us.

In addition to the paradox of despair and hope we find another when we read the passage from Matthew. Even as we impose ashes of repentance publicy on each other’s foreheads we are warned of doing our good deeds before others. Matthew reminds us to be on our guard against the pernicious nature of sin which can so easily turn humility and confession into an event of pride and self-aggrandizement. This may be why the reading ends with the injunction to store up our treasures in heaven and not on earth. During Lent we are encouraged to fast from something to which we may be too dearly attached, be it food or books or politics or what have you, or to take on a practice that encourages introspection or looses the bonds of injustice. However, the final word from Jesus in the Matthew passage is to resist doing these things as merit badge activities which we can proudly wear as marks of our spiritual aptitude. Rather, we do them so that the center of our being is shaped in the way of Jesus.

Tags: sermons

1 response so far ↓

  • 1 isaac // Feb 7, 2008 at 6:14 pm

    Jason, great reflection. I hope you had a chance to give it.

    The thing I like about the Isaiah 58 passage is that it shows us that our Lenten practices don’t require creativity. We don’t need to put a whole lot of thought about what we should give up or whatever. Isaiah just tells us what to do: “share your bread with the hungry, and bring the homeless poor into your house” (v. 7). That’s not an easy Lenten practice. But at least it’s clear. Will we do it? Probably not.